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Anti-Milosevic veterans see their deeds under threat

May 07, 2008 9:50 AM

BELGRADE, Serbia-They were the force behind Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's downfall in 2000, and then went on to help others shake off dictatorships thinking they had done the job at home.

Eight years later, Serbia's famed revolutionaries fear that the democracy born of their uprising may be destroyed with Milosevic's loyalists returning to power at an election this weekend.

"This is a very dangerous moment," said Nenad Balcevic, a former member of the now disbanded Otpor movement. "Darkness could again prevail."

The balloting on Sunday is considered crucial for determining whether Serbia continues with pro-Western reforms, launched after Milosevic was ousted, or returns to the defiant nationalism that had marked his era.

Liberal Serbs fear that if the far-right Serbian Radical Party wins as predicted, it would halt the process of integration into the European Union and restore Milosevic-era oppression.

Everywhere, there are alarming signs. Echoing Milosevic-era rhetoric, the nationalists are accusing pro-Western opponents of "treason," while Serbia's President Boris Tadic has received death threats for signing a pre-membership deal with the European Union.

Earlier this week, a senior Radical Party official said that, once in power, the party would crack down against pro-EU organizations and media.

Back in 2000, Balcevic, 29, and others from Otpor, which means "resistance", faced a strong and brutal adversary.

Milosevic's regime already had incited four wars in the former Yugoslavia, and used force in Serbia to curb dissent and silence opposition media and politicians.

More than any other group, Otpor activists took the brunt of the repression. Nearly 10,000 were arrested by police in the weeks before the October 2000 uprising, spending some 26,000 hours in jail.

Still, they used humor and optimism to fight the oppression, staging performances and colorful publicity stunts to draw attention to their ideas.

Soon, Otpor's sign, a clenched fist on a white or black background, became the emblem of resistance against Milosevic. When the dictator finally fell, the group's importance was acknowledged at home and abroad when Otpor received MTV's Free Your Mind Award

"We were a serious force," said former Otpor activist Sinisa Sikman. "We had our historic role."

After ousting Milosevic, Otpor transformed itself into a political party, but soon disbanded because they failed to enter Parliament in a 2003 vote. Some went to help organize uprisings in other former Soviet states, such as Ukraine, Georgia and Belarus.

Today, the group's former activists remain engaged in one way or the other. Sikman, 30, promotes nonviolent resistance, while Balcevic works with Serbia's youth groups. Another prominent member, Ivan Marovic, is politically active on the Internet writing for a Serbian blog from the United States.

"We made the first step," Balcevic says of the anti-Milosevic uprising. "The election on Sunday is the next big crossroads that will determine our future."

Despite its major role in 2000, Otpor veterans see no chance of reviving the group. They say a similar movement might form only if the nationalists try to revive the past repression.

Srdjan Bogosavljevic, who runs the Strategic Marketing polling agency, agrees. He says that although the people remain unhappy with their lives, there is no place for groups like Otpor as there is no common adversary.

"Back then Milosevic could be blamed for everything," he said. "It is not that simple now."

Sikman says that the nationalists' revival in Serbia was the result of many factors, the incompetence of post-Milosevic leaders who failed to truly reform society, but also Western policies toward post-Milosevic Serbia.

The West, Sikman argues, has made many mistakes that have pushed the Serbs away, such as recognizing Kosovo independence or requiring travel visas for EU countries.

"I am convinced that if the people had the chance to see Europe, they would not vote for the nationalists," he said.

Some former Otpor members have tried to deliver the message in a more public way.

In the northern city of Novi Sad, a group of activists wearing the Otpor insignia recently tried to hand over an "isolated house", a cardboard house surrounded by barbed wire and soldiers, to a nationalist politician.

They also poured ashes over their heads, an act of redemption for bringing to power Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who has since adopted nationalist rhetoric.

Former Otpor leader Igor Popovic, said "our country is threatened with renewed isolation, and it is our duty to point to those imposing it upon us."

Others, like Sikman and Balcevic say it is now up to the new generations to take on the struggle.

"You know what they say, the bigger the oppression, the greater the resistance," Balcevic said.


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