Remembering Serbia's Nonviolent Victory

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In the United States, the first week of October passed by without much fanfare. However, for about 10 million Serbian citizens, it was a time to celebrate. This past week was the tenth anniversary of the Serbian people's victory over communist tyrant Slobodan Milosevic and of the moment the country joined the ranks of the world's newest democracies.

Milosevic was brought down not by bombs, bullets, or a military coup, nor was he even brought down the ballot, although the presidential election of Kostunica was the lynchpin. Milsoevic was forced out of power in a massive display of nonviolent civil resistance that represented the first truly democratic transition of the 21st century.

The campaign against Milosevic was organized, coordinated, strategized, and implemented over the period of almost a year by a movement who called themselves OTPOR! ("Resistance!"). They were mostly students, many quite young, who had grown up under decades of war, poverty, ethnic cleansing, and severe repression, and who had simply had enough. In reflecting on their victory a year later, one of the OTPOR leaders, Srdja Popovic, credited the movement's success to the decision to choose life over simple survival: "We were a group of fans of life, and this is why we succeeded."

There is a school of thought that argues it was the NATO bombing of Belgrade that brought down Milosevic. Besides being extremely arrogant and dismissive of the efforts of millions of Serbs, it is patently wrong. The arguments in favor of violence as a force of change emphasize its efficiency and ability to produce a quick result. But there was a 16-month interim between the day the last NATO bomb fell Belgrade and the day that Milosevic conceded the election. Not exactly a speedy turnaround.

In fact, some political change did occur as a result of the bombing, but it was overwhelmingly in Milosevic's favor. His popularity amongst Serbs peaked during the 11-week NATO bombing campaign, despite the widespread discontent that had been fomenting against him for decades. This is because whenever a country is attacked from the outside, people tend to rally around the leader, no matter how disliked. If anything, the NATO bombings likely helped Milosevic hold power longer than he would have otherwise.

Another misconception about this struggle is that the convergence of hundreds of thousands (perhaps a million) people on the center of Belgrade on October 5, 2000 was a "a mob" that in the words of one American reporter, "no one could have predicted." To the contrary, all of OTPOR could have predicted it, given that they planned it. The movement was not, as Western media implied, an ad-hoc crowd that streamed into the streets of Belgrade unprovoked and on the spur of the moment. OTPOR was an organized, highly disciplined movement with a complex strategy and menu of tactics (all nonviolent) intended to help them meet a set of well-defined objectives. Calling the events of early October 2000 a "mob" reflects the failure to appreciate the skills, talents, and dedication of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people.

As an empirically rigorous 2006 report by Freedom House called "How Freedom is Won" demonstrates, countries that gain their freedom through nonviolent means are more likely to successfully make the transition to democracy. In fact, in 50 of 67 transitions to democracy in the three decades at the end of the 20th century, "nonviolent civilian resistance" was the critical factor in the transition from authoritarianism. And these countries are more likely to still be democratic a decade later, i.e. they have a much lower risk of "democratic backsliding." This is because the context in which the struggle is waged has much to do with the context that emerges post-victory.

In obtaining their freedom through a massive nonviolent struggle that was not without significant personal risk (many young activists were arrested, beaten, and worse during the last year of the OTPOR campaign), the Serbs of OTPOR remind us not to take our own for granted. That is something to celebrate.

An earlier version of this piece was published as an op-ed in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on October 5, 2007.