After Yugoslav riot police carted an aging computer, stacks of posters, and every last scrap of paper from the motley Belgrade offices of the country's leading student movement earlier this month, only scattered espresso grounds and a few overflowing ashtrays remained.
Even for Serbia's notorious security forces, the raid seemed excessive. But ahead of this weekend's national elections (Sept. 24) government officials are jittery.
Under normal circumstances, the election results might seem a forgone conclusion. These elections, after all, are being held on the terms of Serbia's poker-faced dictator, Slobodan Milosevic. With a divided opposition, control of the airwaves, a muzzled independent press, and a disillusioned and desperate public living on wages averaging fewer than US$40 per month, Milosevic might appear to be in the catbird seat.
But this time around, Milosevic has a new opponent he can't seem to master: an irreverent, nonviolent, student-led movement called "Otpor" or "Resistance," which prides itself on a leaderless structure and a singular aim of getting rid of a dictator that has spoiled their youth. Otpor has emerged from obscurity to become a powerful national movement with 25,000 activists and 120 chapters across the country. And on the eve of elections that once seemed predestined, Milosevic finds his hold on power may be in genuine peril.
The raid on Otpor's headquarters was just the latest chapter in a widespread government crackdown on opposition groups since April that's included well over a thousand arrests, beatings, restrictions on media, and an unrelenting smear campaign against anti-Milosevic leaders.
A few months ago, election prospects for Milosevic's opponents seemed bleak. After years of low-intensity conflict with Serbia's independent press, Milosevic declared full-scale war on his media foes. On May 3, security forces stormed the two beacons of independent broadcast in Serbia, pulling the plug permanently on Radio B292 and opposition television Studio B. This left Milosevic with complete domination of the airwaves to plead his xenophobic case to the electorate.
Even the facade of an open society has disappeared, according to Duska Anastijevic, a reporter for the Serbian journal of political analysis Vreme. "Milosevic has always wielded repression at home, but in a nuanced way. But we're at the dawn of a naked Latin American-style dictatorship."
Meanwhile opposition parties, as they have done for years in Serbia, seemed to be playing right into Milosevic's hands by bickering and fielding multiple candidates to oppose Milosevic.
None of this has deterred Otpor activists. "Otpor is a new kind of opposition force, and [its] huge popularity in Serbia applied a kind of pressure on the opposition to close ranks," said Saska Rankovic, who covers opposition politics in Belgrade for the independent news service BETA.
"Otpor has a remarkable energy and most importantly they've stood up to Milosevic in a way that the established opposition never has," Rankovic said. "People on the streets they think they're brave. And the opposition is absolutely dependent on them as foot soldiers, especially with independent media being silenced."
Otpor is gearing up for the elections with a get-out-the-vote campaign centered around the mantra "He's finished! It's time for him to go."
"We don't tell people who to vote for, just that their vote counts and that we all have to do our part to get rid of this nightmare called Milosevic," says 24-year-old Otpor activist Veckey Petkovic. "Milosevic controls the media, and he has 20 percent of the people in his pocket. The rest of the country hates his guts and knows he is an evil tyrant. It's our job to motivate those 80 percent."
How did Otpor evolve from a loose group of fed-up college students to a political force strong enough to make an indicted war criminal nervous?
It was just over a year ago that a handful of students founded Otpor to protest draconian academic laws that were turning Belgrade University into a rubber stamp for the Milosevic way. The group quickly picked up steam on campus and made the leap to national politics.
When I wandered into Otpor's Belgrade headquarters last winter, Otpor had yet to make much of a splash. They were obviously having a hell of a good time mounting a campaign to nonviolently oust Milosevic. And it was a campaign that was gaining momentum. Nearly every inch of wall space taken up with some form of the group's trademark clenched fist with which they were blanketing Serbia: More than 10 million fists have been hung, spray-painted, or pasted in public spaces across the country.
On another wall hung life-sized head-to-toe portraits of Milosevic and his powerful and equally despised wife, Mira Marcovic. On the poster, Milosevic's face was obscured with the Otpor fist; his wife framed in a marksman's target.
A giant homemade, wall-sized calendar revealed a growing list of meetings, concerts, and actions in the Serbian hinterlands. Actions often amounted to outlandish political theater. Most skewered Milosevic, and some even took aim at the apathetic citizenry. In one such action, activists took to downtown Belgrade dressed as research scientists. Mockingly, they took to their hands and knees with oversized magnifying glasses in search of microscopic signs of civic engagement among the population.
Sveta Matic, an Otpor member, lives in exile in Budapest after deserting his Yugoslavian Army unit rather than fight in Kosovo, and being hounded by the Serb secret police. He explained that humor has played a part in Otpor's fight from the beginning. "Milosevic is many things, but he is definitely not a funny guy. He's stuck in 1386, in a field of black birds with Czar Lazur losing gloriously to the Turks."
"We're a generation that likes to play jokes, to laugh all the time, and that is our secret weapon. We're sick of being defined by a glorious loser. We want to join the rest of the world," Matic said.
For Milosevic's 59th birthday last month, Otpor plastered a blistering card in town squares throughout Serbia. The greeting: "Thank you for the childhood you have taken from us, for the unforgettable war scenes you have given us, for all the crimes you have committed in the name of Serbs, for all the lost battles. ... Thank you for the unforgettable convoys of our brothers, for the sound of air raid sirens, for all the lives lost in vain .... Happy birthday, Mr. President, may you celebrate the next one with your nearest and dearest on a deserved holiday in the Hague," seat of the International war crimes tribunal for the Balkans, which has indicted Milosevic.
Perhaps the most notable incident in Otpor's campaign came when Serbia's most famous actor, Voya Brovic, took a curtain call while wearing an Otpor T-shirt. With his eyes dramatically clenched shut, Brovic raised his fist to the sky. Brovic's initially startled fellow actors followed suit and raised their fists, joining him in an Otpor salute. The audience reportedly gave a 15 minute standing ovation. The following day the Serbian Ministry of Culture abruptly canceled the play, and Brovic has been blacklisted since.
The government attempted to ignore Otpor for months. Serbia's Minister of Information, Goran Matic, makes a daily habit of denouncing opponents of the regime as spies, terrorists, and enemies of the state. Yet when I interviewed him last winter, Matic made a point of refusing to even mention Otpor's name.
"They may ignore us now, but as we become stronger, they will become more nervous and I think we will have a serious crackdown," said Ivan Marovic, one of Otpor's most colorful young leaders.
Marovic's statement proved prophetic. By January, the regime had dropped its unstated policy of ignoring Otpor and launched a full-scale crackdown in April. Marovic himself has now been arrested six times.
A report on an Otpor demonstration led off a state-sponsored newscast on New Year's Eve. This time, Matic blasted Otpor, calling it a "fascist" and dangerous "terrorist organization" funded by the CIA and British and French Intelligence. Otpor had gone from a nonentity to public enemy number one.
"Calling the Otpor activists terrorists is of course absurd," said Bogdan Ivanisevic, who tracks human rights violations in the former Yugoslavia for Human Rights Watch. "Otpor has shown no signs of being anything but a homegrown, nonviolent movement. But that kind of rhetoric laid the ground for legal pretext to crack down on Otpor's political activities. Serb authorities essentially made Otpor illegal."
The simple act of wearing an Otpor logo has become risky, with dozens of Otpor supporters arrested for displaying the now-famous fist. Most arrested activists are released after a few hours of fruitless interrogation aimed at cracking Otpor's leaderless structure. But Human Rights Watch reports increasing accounts of beatings, and several activists are languishing in prison on bogus but serious charges, including attempted murder.
If anything, Milosevic's rough treatment of Otpor has elevated the group to folk hero status in Serbia. Opposition politicians clamor to don Otpor T-shirts. There are now several chapters of "Mothers and Grandmothers for Otpor." At least a dozen Otpor moms have been arrested alongside their kids.
Even with some clear momentum for the opposition, and a solid lead in the polls, an orderly transition to democracy in Serbia is not likely. Serbian elections are, after all, being held behind a kind of iron curtain with few international election monitors or journalists present.
"It's a tense situation," says Human Rights Watch's Bogdanavic. "Milosevic is extremely unpopular within Serbia. But the trouble is he can't afford to go. The Hague has indicted him for international crimes. So, unfortunately, at this point anything is possible."
For its part, Otpor promises to lead massive street demonstrations if Milosevic tries to steal the elections. But some activists express worry that Milosevic will become even more dangerous as he clings to the edge.
"I talk with many of my friends about what Milosevic will do," Otpor's Petkovic said. "A lot of us worry that after all this ethnic cleansing, he's preparing the ground for 'youth cleansing.' But of course we rarely think like that. We remain the most optimistic people in Serbia."
This article originally appeared in The MoJo Wire, the online sister publication of Mother Jones, the award-winning investigative news magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.