Serbia's Export: Peaceful Revolutions

ReutersPora activists rally Monday in Kiev. The group uses the strategies of Otpor, which toppled Milosevic and helped oust Shevardnadze.
BELGRADE -- They led an uprising that toppled Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and last year they played a major role in ousting President Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia.

A group of youthful Serbs is offering guidance -- for a fee -- on how to carry out peaceful revolutions, and their latest clients are people trying to shake off oppression in Ukraine and Belarus.

"We knew there would be work for us after Milosevic," said Danijela Nenadic, a program coordinator of the Belgrade-based Center for Nonviolent Resistance.

The nongovernmental group emerged from Otpor, the pro-democracy movement that helped sweep Milosevic from power by organizing massive and colorful protests that drew crowds who never previously had the courage to oppose the former Yugoslav president.

In Ukraine and Belarus, tens of thousands of people have been staging daily protests -- carbon copies of the anti-Milosevic rallies -- with "training" provided by the Serbian group.

Otpor, which means "resistance" in Serbian, knows the price of struggling for its beliefs. More than any other group, Otpor activists took the brunt of the Milosevic regime's repression in the pro-democracy movement that led to his ouster in the popular revolt in October 2000. About 9,600 Otpor activists were arrested by police during the massive uprising, spending some 26,000 hours in jail. Many of them were beaten.

Otpor's symbol -- a clenched fist on a white or black flag -- appeared on buildings, signs and shop windows everywhere in Serbia. Though it had thousands of members, Otpor's true strength was in its reach: The loose-knit organization had chapters even in the tiniest villages around the country.

Otpor gained attention with colorful publicity stunts intended to make ordinary people reconsider longtime political beliefs. It inspired optimism in a nation that had lost hope. The group, which once erected a giant cardboard telescope in Belgrade to let people watch a falling star dubbed "Slobotea," says it has "well-trained" followers in Ukraine and Belarus. In Georgia, Ukraine and Belarus, anti-government activists "saw what we did in Serbia and they contacted us for professional training," group member Sinisa Sikman said.

Last year, Otpor's clenched fist was flying high on white flags again -- this time in Georgia, when protesters stormed the parliament in an action that led to the toppling of Shevardnadze.

Last month, Ukrainian border authorities denied entry to Alexandar Maric, a member of Otpor and an adviser with the U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House. A Ukrainian student group called Pora was following the strategies of Otpor.

In Belarus, police have detained several activists, including an opposition party leader, as opposition groups stage continuing protests against a recent referendum that will allow President Alexander Lukashenko to extend his rule. "We were teaching them how to organize those protests, to increase public interest and draw crowds and motivate them to endure," said Sikman, who declined to reveal how much his group charges for its services. "We have an advantage over other such organizations in the West because we lived under a dictatorial regime and they did not."

In a small office in downtown Belgrade, the group of about 10 activists holds daily staff meetings as its telephones and fax machines steadily ring. "We have several calls for our help, not only from Europe," Nenadic said, refusing to disclose the exact countries. "What good would it bring if we tell the autocrats what's up and coming?"