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World Perspective | YUGOSLAVIA

Light Touch to Deadly Serious Struggle

May 12, 2000|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Their end is dead serious, but their means are often prankishly comic.

Otpor, a student movement bent on ousting Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, carved up a big cake in the shape of Yugoslavia on Milosevic's birthday last year and served pieces to passersby, telling them that this is how his ethnic wars have dismembered the country.

On New Year's Eve, the activists gathered scores of revelers in this capital city and, at the stroke of midnight, sent everyone home with a party-pooping lecture. The master of ceremonies cited an "absence of anything to celebrate" under Milosevic's rule.

On Easter Sunday, the student activists mocked the regime by handing out brightly colored eggs. "It's hard, but watch out," they warned. "It'll crack."

For a populace tired of lost wars, international isolation and one-man rule, but also bored with traditional opposition parties, Otpor has struck an irreverent funny bone and gained thousands of followers, injecting new life into the struggle for control of Yugoslavia and its dominant republic, Serbia.

"The idea is to make protest creative and entertaining," said Vukasin Petrovic, 24, who helped start the movement 19 months ago at Belgrade University and is trying to overcome his generation's cynicism and apathy toward politics.

The clenched fist that is the symbol of Otpor, which means resistance, is painted on walls and printed on T-shirts across the republic. It's almost as ubiquitous this spring as the bull's-eye target that many Serbs wore a year ago, in defiance of North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombs, during the war over Serbia's Kosovo province.

Since last summer, Otpor activists in their teens and early 20s have staged hundreds of mini-demonstrations across the country, satirizing the man who has ruled Yugoslavia and Serbia for nearly as long as they can remember. They have helped prod their elders in Serbia's weak opposition parties into a loose, fragile alliance.

It is uncertain whether the alliance can stay together and beat Milosevic in the next elections, scheduled to be held in Yugoslavia by the end of this year and in Serbia in 2001. But Otpor has unsettled the regime, sharpening a struggle for the hearts and minds of 18-to-24-year-olds, who are the least inclined to vote.

Police have arrested hundreds of Otpor demonstrators, holding them for brief periods. Citing the group's support from the West, officials have branded its members foreign mercenaries. "Their ideology is American money," said Ivan Markovic, a Yugoslav Cabinet minister. "We must salvage the young from the claws of such militant groups."

The Yugoslav United Left Party, led by Milosevic's wife, has formed its own youth branch to counter Otpor. An attempt to force one Otpor member to join Milosevic's Socialist Party last week led to a confrontation in the president's hometown, leaving three other activists badly beaten and in jail and setting off a new round of anti-government protests.

"What scares the regime is a metaphysical thing," Belgrade political analyst Ivan Vejvoda said. "Seeing Otpor, they see a future that's not theirs. They see a generation of younger people who are willing to draw the line and feel they have little to lose."

Student-led protests have cornered Milosevic twice before during his 12 years in power: in 1991 and in the winter of 1996-97. But they lost steam both times after prominent student leaders joined mainstream opposition parties that feuded and splintered.

Speaking last month to 100,000 people at a rally of the reunited opposition, Otpor activist Vladimir Pavlov vowed that the student group will remain strong and independent. "Next time one of you betrays us, 100,000 of us will appear at your door," he warned.

Otpor's jesting style of protest evolved from the wit of speakers at the 1996-97 rallies. But Petrovic, the movement's intense, bearded co-founder, didn't smile and displayed little humor during an hourlong interview. Twice arrested, he's clearly not in it for the fun.

"We've learned from past failures that there should be no leaders," he said, insisting that Otpor's decisions are collective. "We can be led by an idiot or united around an idea. If we put individuals forward as leaders, they can be discredited. It's harder to discredit an idea."

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