Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Regime Targets Students

The Belgrade regime has turned the screws on the student movement Otpor in the run-up to this Sunday's elections
By Zakalin Nezic

Twelve police officers burst into the Belgrade office of the student opposition movement Otpor (Resistance) on September 4. Without even producing a search warrant, they demanded ID cards from everyone in the office, then seized computers, disks, posters, stickers, T-shirts, maps and schedules of the organisation's anti-Milosevic campaign.


As uniformed police barred reporters and cameramen from entering the building, the confiscated items were loaded into a police truck outside. Later that day another Otpor office was raided in Mladenovac, south of Belgrade.


As the popularity of Otpor, founded by a group of Belgrade university students in 1998, has sky-rocketed in recent months, so raids on the movement's offices and arrests of its activists, for putting up posters, handing out leaflets, even wearing Otpor T-shirts, have been stepped up.


Impending federal elections on September 24 probably explain the increased harassment, but as founding member Vladimir Radunovic emphasised in an interview at Otpor's Belgrade office the day before the police raid, the organisation is not a political party and will not be fielding any candidates in the election:


"One of our main ideas in the early days of Otpor was that we would always be a movement and never become a party," he said. "We want to help the democratic parties here to establish democracy, but we will never promote our own people. That is why Otpor has no single leader or figurehead."


Studious and often found working at his computer in the organisation's headquarters, Radunovic personifies the movements student roots, but Otpor has long attracted support far beyond the campus. "Otpor was originally formed during the University crisis in 1998 and it was founded mainly by young people.


"Students belong, but so do people in their fifties and some even older, but somehow it is still considered a youth organisation," he said. "Maybe because we have so much energy, I guess it's because of that."


Otpor has never revealed its membership figures, but Radunovic acknowledges that it has several thousand followers. However, the movement still depends heavily on a tight core of activists. "I would say that we have a few, let's say, a hundred maybe, really active members," Radunovic said. "The others members support Otpor, but they're not active."


Although some Serbs in Montenegro and Kosovo have expressed sympathy for Otpor, Radunovic believes that the movement should concentrate its energies in Serbia, "Otpor does not have a real task in Montenegro, because it emerged in Serbia. And the same goes for Kosovo, too. Some would say Kosovo is still a part of Serbia, but it's not under the control of the regime - not at all. So in that sense, Otpor has no role in Kosovo, only in Serbia."


As elections approach, Otpor is seeking to function as a kind of pressure group, prodding the conscience of the opposition and bolstering its strength. "Otpor is always willing to co-operate with the genuine opposition in the main task, which is to change the system. So while what they do is their own business, Otpor will always pressure them - to be totally open with the public and not, for example, to start co-operating with the Serbian Renewal Movement [SPO] which we believe is not the right way as the SPO seems reluctant to take any real action against the regime.


"Our role in the elections may not be that overt, but it's an important one. We have a lot of influence with opposition leaders as our movement is the only one which still engages the energy and sympathy of the public."


Otpor has faced criticism from the regime for accepting financial aid from the West. Radunovic though insists the movement does rely on foreign money. "The most important thing is that the West must co-operate with us, and not try to co-opt us into their own scheme of things," he said. "It's obvious that Otpor is aiming to create a democratic and free state in Serbia. So these rumours are circulating, mainly that we are paid by NATO, and are going to collaborate with NATO in the bombing of Serbia, but they are too ridiculous to even deny."


Zakalin Nezic is a freelance journalist and author of "Zbogom Srbijo" (Goodbye Serbia). Published by ZayuPress, 2000.