The current spate of student protests across the United Kingdom has divided opinions and the media has rushed to portray the students as hooligans and radicals. But what if you lived in a country where students could not protest or risked their lives by doing so? What about those protests that changed the face of history or left indelible marks on the politics of an entire region or nation?
University of Belgrade, October 1998. The increasingly authoritarian and paranoid regime of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević introduced repressive laws in an attempt to curb media freedom and the autonomy of universities. Otpor (Отпор in Serbian Cyrillic, meaning ‘resistance’) was formed by 15 students at the University of Belgrade to protest these laws.
In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia in response to massive human rights abuses and crimes against humanity taking place in Kosovo during the Kosovo War. In the aftermath of the NATO bombings, Otpor changed their focus to a non-violent campaign of protest against Slobodan Milošević and the movement grew rapidly from just a couple of hundred members to thousands and then tens of thousands. Students engaged in peaceful marches, met in coffee shops and schools, and made use of graffiti and propaganda posters to convey their message.
The Milošević regime responded with a brutal counter-attack against the student organisation. Up to 2000 students were arrested, many were beaten on streets and in police stations and the mass media responded by branding the students as hoodlums and terrorists.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, Otpor launched the “Gotov je” campaign. Gotov je (Готов је in Cyrillic, see above right) means “he is finished” and it was a widespread campaign to encourage voters to turn up at the polls and to use their vote to remove Slobodan Milošević from power. The campaign was specifically aimed at disillusioned voters and youth abstainers. It is estimated that six tons of gotov je stickers (or approximately two million) were printed in six weeks and affixed to buildings, cars, street signs and in shop windows.
Prior to the elections, eighteen opposition parties combined in an attempt to present a unified position against the ruling party. The opposition was called the Democratic Opposition of Serbia coalition and Vojislav Koštunica was their prime candidate. The elections took place on September 24, 2000. By midnight on the 24th, both independent sources and coalition staff reported that Koštunica had won over 50% of the votes (thus ensuring a win) but the Federal Electoral Committee stated that no party had won the required majority. As discrepancies and irregularities began to emerge, allegations of election fraud were rife and this was fueled by Milošević’s transparent ploy to manipulate the vote and force a runoff.
Koštunica called for a general strike which initially started with miners at the countries Kolubara mines which produced most of Serbia’s electricity. As worker involvement increased, Otpor arranged road blocks across the country and together, they brought the country to a standstill. On October 5, 2000, several hundreds of thousands of students, workers and other protests converged on Belgrade in what has become known as the Bulldozer Revolution. The protests were peaceful but during the events, the parliament was partially burned down and the main television station RTS was taken over. The police, who had been secretly working with Otpor and the opposition for months, stood by and refused to carry out Milošević’s orders.
Slobodan Milošević resigned a couple of days later and was eventually transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to stand trial on war crimes charges. He passed away on March 11, 2006 before he could be convicted or sentenced.
Otpor is widely acknowledged for the role that they played in bringing down the Milošević regime and they were awarded the MTV's Free Your Mind Award in 2000.