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

Serb Activists Helped Inspire Ukraine Protests

Activists who helped topple Milosevic played a key role in the formation of the Ukrainian protest movement - but can now only watch events and wait from afar.
By John Simpson

As hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters’ march through the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, protesting against what they see as falsified presidential election results, sixteen floors up a Belgrade skyscraper, Danijela Nenadic and Sinisa Sikman are monitoring the situation like hawks.

Veterans of the student-led non-violent protests that brought the regime of Slobodan Milosevic crashing down in Serbia in 2000, they have a close personal interest in the outcome of protests now rocking Kiev.


The clenched black fist displayed on flags and on people’s foreheads in Kiev was first used by their own organisation, Otpor, meaning resistance, to unite Serbia’s disparate opposition parties against Milosevic’s authoritarian rule.


But while Otpor has played a role in helping Ukrainian student groups and parties marshal their forces, Nenadic and Sikman laugh when asked about media accounts virtually suggesting they directly pull the protesters’ strings in Kiev.


Otpor, now an NGO called the Centre for Nonviolent Resistance, is “not in the business of exporting revolutions”, Nenadic said. “We are not revolutionary advisors, we just don’t work like that.”


“What we did in Serbia is known all across the world,” Nenadic added, with restrained pride “and what is happening in Kiev today is very similar to what happened to us.”


“But there is no universal concept to fight authoritarianism. You have to have your own strategy. All we can do is share our experience.”


The Belgrade centre’s direct links to Ukraine date back to March 2003. But the key event that forged close ties followed in April this year when 18 activists from Ukraine attended a four-day Otpor workshop on non-violent resistance in Novi Sad, in northern Serbia.

Plotting revolutions and “regime change” was not on the menu. What the Ukrainians came to tap into was Otpor’s big bank of experience in organising pre-election campaigns and mobilising the youth vote.


It was in Novi Sad that the Ukrainians adopted the name Pora to identify their movement, meaning “it is time”.


“They wanted some experience from us, as a similar student and youth organisation doing the same things,” Sikman said, from his office that overlooks the federal parliament where the Serbian regime finally collapsed in October 2000, after crowds stormed the building.


Sikman says the Serbs helped their Ukrainian counterparts organise and unite round a simple slogan and programme. “First we had to unite them and find a common denominator – this is what Otpor did before,” he said.


Otpor, he recalled, unified Serbia’s almost hopelessly fragmented opposition around a single list of election candidates by creating a non-political umbrella organisation. This outflanked the ambitions of the various party leaders and united them all around a single goal – the removal of Milosevic.


“We brought together the different visions and egos of the leaders of around 19 different parties,” Sikman said, “from left to right, monarchists and nationalists – we had support from everyone.”


“We had exactly what political parties lacked – no political agenda and no leader,” he continued.


At the Novi Sad workshop they drew up a strategic plan to help guide Pora step by step from March to polling day in November. Every day, from the pre-election silence backwards, was to be accounted for.


None of this involved tips on storming government palaces and presidential villas, however - contrary to some recent western media reports that have presented Otpor as a group of US-financed revolutionaries “for hire”.


“We taught them fundraising, team work, negotiation techniques, handling the media, door-to-door campaigning and how to motivate the students,” Sikman said.


There was little difference between Otpor and its Ukrainian counterpart, Sikman remarked, “The only difference between Serbs and Ukrainians was that the Ukrainians were harder to motivate. They were more afraid than we had been.”


Nenadic puts that down to the fact that the Serb activists were more battle-hardened than the Ukrainians, from almost a decade of organising protests against Milosevic’s violent, repressive regime.


For the last few days, all the people from Otpor can do is watch from afar. They have had no direct personal connection with Kiev since Aleksander Maric, another activist from the centre, was thrown out of Ukraine two weeks ago.


This may not have been such a bad thing, Sikman said, “When Maric was expelled from Ukraine they [Pora] saw that as an extra motivation.”


As the protests continue in Ukraine, Sikman talks on the telephone daily with his former trainees. “They are so excited there right now,” he says with a smile, looking down from his city centre eyrie onto a now very calm-looking Belgrade.


He peels off an emailed photograph of a crowd in Kiev holding a protest placard that reads “Otpor – because I love Ukraine”. It is a reworked Serbian placard that once read “Otpor – because I love Serbia” - only the word Serbia been covered over.

But the ex-Otpor activists have no exact advice about the Ukrainians should do next. “Our only answer is that a non-violent strategy is absolutely applicable to any country,” said Sikman. “But the same pattern that happened in Serbia is not going to happen anywhere else in the world.”  


John Simpson is an IWPR contributor in Belgrade. Marcus Tanner is IWPR Balkans editor.

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