Problems and Purpose:
Otpor! addressed the problems of the Milosevic regime and offered Serbian students a productive outlet for their frustrations with the regime. Otpor! was committed to non-violent and unique applications of political dissent and routinely incorporated comedy and music (mainly protest rock) into their protests. Otpor! prioritized “noncooperation… non-violent intervention … and protest and persuasion” to drive their movement. Srđa Popović, one of the first organizers of Otpor! stated that “it was possible, even under the most seemingly dire conditions, to get people to care” (6). Ultimately, Otpor! was focused not only on regime change, but on shifting the political culture of Serbia towards a more active and engaged populace, specifically one that would produce citizens that would hold governments accountable for irresponsible or dangerous action and simply care about their fellow citizen.
Background History and Context:
The former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was comprised of six ethnically distinct republics until its breakup in 1992. When the six republics broke apart, Serbia and Montenegro stayed conjoined and referred to their union as “Serbia and Montenegro” or “The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia” until Serbia’s succession in 2002. Slobodan Milosevic served as President of the Serbian republic under the first iteration of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and then served as president of the Serbia and Montenegro union until his resignation in 2000.
Yugoslavia, and Serbia specifically, were the center points of massive political unrest and war during the late 1900s, and the Milosevic regime was at the center of managing these troubles. In its indictment of Milosevic on war crimes charges, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia stated that Milosevic specifically stoked ethnic animus between the Slavic republics. Sell claims that Milosevic was a political opportunist in nature, never really tying himself down to any political narratives, instead choosing to use whatever methods would lead to the consolidation of his authoritarian power.
Otpor! grew in response to Milosevic’s authoritarian policies. First forming on October 10, 1998, Otpor! began when the Serbian government took all autonomy away from the University of Belgrade by installing pro-regime faculty and staff and instituted a new draconian media censorship law that dissolved media outlets who were deemed critical of the regime. The Milosevic dictatorship was known for corruption, routinely jailing dissidents, controlling state media, violating international law, and participating in war crimes in Kosovo in 1998. Milosevic also expressed a blatant disregard for the constitution of both Yugoslavia and the Serbian republic and routinely abused his power as president. This presented a significant problem for the Serbian people. With no real representation or say in how their government operated, and no real force within the government advocating for change, the Serbian people looked to students to provide this needed force of change. The Otpor! movement struggled at first with mobilization tactics, but later developed several key examples of unique political dissent that worked to address these problems.
University students began to form resistance meetings centered on protecting their access to information and knowledge (the media and the university). This group quickly formed into the wide-scale protest movement that we know today.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities:
All activities were planned, financially supported and implemented by grassroots members or community organizers. Over time, international NGOs, specifically American organizations, became interested in supporting this group. The International Republican Institute was a key financial contributor and provided organizational training and support to Otpor! in its early years, making the organization more sustainable and productive. Veterans of the Slovakian Rock Volieb campaign also contributed technical experience in developing popular protest movements and other democratic efforts. These trainings helped Otpor! develop their phantom cell organizing structure, in which individuals act based on a list of values delegated to them, but the action is of their own accord. This structure made Otpor! very difficult to track down and stop, as there was no real organizational structure for the government to attack.
Participant Recruitment and Selection:
If one wanted to see the removal of Milosevic, one could be in Otpor!, making this a self-selection organization where the onus was on the individual to participate. Otpor! was primarily a student-led organization. As Otpor! grew in popularity, more everyday Serbians began to take part in their demonstrations. Otpor! was focused on mobilizing people’s anger towards Milosevic, and many Serbians gladly participated in their protests, street theaters, and concerts. At its height, Otpor! had 70,000 supporters take part in the final protests leading to Milosevic’s resignation. This shows that student-led protests and social movements can be effective at bringing a wider audience and greater public support to their movements.
Methods and Tools Used:
Otpor!’s mission and tactics were intertwined. They wanted to engage people to act on their frustration and anger in productive, meaningful ways. To do this, they employed the phantom cell structure method of political engagement. Otpor! aimed to mobilize individuals to act independently in unique, difficult to suppress, forms of political activism. Otpor! used these tactics in response to the environment in which they lived. With many of their fellow dissidents being jailed and persecuted, Otpor! had to employ strategies that a) produced results and more importantly b) protected the lives and freedom of their members.
Within this phantom cell structure, Otpor! recommended to participants that they use their frustration, anger, and resentment towards Milosevic to inspire creative forms of protest using humor. Milja Jovanovic’s Rage Against the Machine is an invaluable resource for this section, as she was one of the first organizers of the Otpor! movement.
Their methods first began with a needs assessment and a group capacity assessment. When they found that their strength was in numbers, motivation for action, and the connections they had in the media and university, their plan began to develop.
Otpor! also produced methods like: protest training workshops, information sharing efforts where they distributed uncensored media and news, communication networks beyond the reaches of the government censors, and get-out-the-vote efforts before the 2000 election.7 All of these methods were aided by their identity as students, as they had access to unbiased media and information through the university. These methods exemplify the importance Nabatchi and Leighninger (2015) place on providing citizens the information they need to create change in their community. As Otpor! gained momentum, they moved into large-scale protests as their main form of action. This allowed them to gain the attention of international mass-media and expand their support beyond the borders of Serbia. These large-scale demonstrations gave Milosevic no choice but to abdicate, as these demonstrations showed Milosevic the tide had turned against his regime.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation:
Otpor! began to stage these creative forms of protest that were quickly picked up by sympathetic media sources, and the country’s attention began to descend on this Belgrade- based student-action movement. The first thing they tackled was breaking the perception of the police and government as frightening institutions that demanded fear and respect from the Serbian people.7 To do this, they wanted people to become comfortable with criticizing the actions of the government and seeing the people in power more as ridiculous rather than daunting). Jovanovic claims, “Otpor helped to mobilize the Serb population and break through a barrier of fear” (pg. 1).7 Humorous protests - like the ironic birthday card they sent to Milosevic in August of 1999, filled with death threats and ill wishes from citizens, or setting up a barrel with Milosevic’s face printed on it in a busy street and charging people a coin to punch the barrel - became commonplace throughout Belgrade.7 These activities were key for developing a strong, participatory movement because These activities gave Serbians the ability to participate in a very small, personal way (signing their name to the birthday card or paying a dinar to hit the Milosevic-painted barrel) that collectively generated the momentum of the movement.
As people became more comfortable participating in these small ways, they came to understand they weren’t alone in their frustrations. Lerner (2014) speaks on the ability of stimulating visual and audial experiences to contribute to effective programming and Otpor! made it easy and stimulating (both visually and audial) for individuals to participate. The communal nature to these protests contributed to people feeling less scared of their government and more connected with their fellow Serbian.7 This led to the movement spreading rapidly and thoroughly throughout Serbian society and participants feeling a sense of connectedness to both their fellow participant, but also to Serbian society as a whole.7
The simplicity of their logo also contributed to their increased notoriety. A simple black, clenched fist became synonymous with their protests. A student simply going and spray-painting the black fist logo on a wall in a well-trafficked area spread the mission and goals of the movement very effectively. This was an easy way for an individual to become involved in the movement, as it requires little to none past experience or expertise in participatory protest movements.
At first, Otpor! staged protests that were meant to draw attention to their demands. This started with engaging the government on the treatment of their members that were caught spray-painting a government building in 1998. They also successfully advocated for the resignation of a university official who ordered student protesters be beaten by government police in November of 1998. These cases cast a national eye on Otpor! and their mission and allowed them to spread their message infinitely more efficiently than they ever could have on their own. These cases also gave them more credibility with the wider public. At the start, they were seen as just trouble-making students that didn’t know what they were doing. These successful advocacy cases gave Otpor! a stronger and more piercing voice in the larger Serbian society. This allowed them to move into their larger demonstrations. Student-organized rock concerts, poster campaigns including the infamous “The Fist is the Salute” and “Resistance, Because I Love Serbia” campaigns were pivotal in succinctly and effectively relaying Otpor!’s messages and goals to the other parts of the Serbian citizenry. Soon Otpor! became a nationally-known movement and their tactics had to adjust to the limelight. After these significant victories, students in other major Serbian cities wanted to participate, and with their newly found national recognition, “we spread like the plague” Jovanovic claims.7
The most important development for Otpor! was getting their message to non-student citizens of Serbia. After their initial protests in 1998, many activists were beaten or jailed by the government. The harsh reaction to young protestors mobilized the older generations of Serbia to sympathize and begin to engage with these protests. Since the government was beating their children and grandchildren in the streets, these older generations became highly motivated towards action. With Otpor! posters on every street corner and roving Otpor! sponsored rock concerts, citizens became inundated with Otpor! messaging and became supportive of the student-led, non-violent aspects of the movement. Nabatchi and Leighninger believe developing this social connection between different classes is key to a successful movement. The mission and purpose began to develop beyond the constraints of the student class and onto Serbian society as a whole The phantom cell structure of Otpor!, and specifically the fact that there was no leader or director became important here. As the movement spread and spread, there was no way for the government to cut the head off the proverbial snake, as they had no one person to jail or beat into submission. As Otpor! spread throughout 1999 and early parts of 2000, the calls for regime change became stronger.
Finally, Milosevic announced in 2000 that he would conduct an early election that would decide the fate of Serbia.7 Otpor! quickly mobilized and hit the streets for their civic engagement and election monitoring efforts.7 Recruiting domestic and international activists to serve as election monitors, spreading the word of an election to every corner of Serbia, and handing out information to voters became their method of participation as their main goal of removing Milosevic became more and more realistic.7 The transition from student movement to larger Serbian citizenry movement was key here as they now had the resources to conduct country-wide election monitoring and GOTV efforts. As the election progressed and Milosevic was defeated, he refused to abdicate the Presidency.7 Domestic pressure from Otpor!, now a fully mature, developed organization, through massive public protests and international pressure from major world powers ended with Milosevic fully resigning his claim and being extradited to the Hague for trial on international war crimes violations. 
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects:
The effect on Serbia that Otpor! had cannot be overstated. Developing these bonds of connectedness between citizens, making Serbian society as a whole more politically conscious, and deepening a sense of true pride in the new Serbian democratic system created a sustainable democratic model for Serbia that still thrives to this day. After Milosevic’s abdication, Otpor! transitioned into a government accountability watchdog and then political party that dissolved in 2004. Now, Srđa Popović, an influential early member of Otpor! has become well-known for running protest workshops and has assisted civic-engagement movements in multiple countries including Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Russia. Otpor! has clearly met their purpose of forcing Milosevic out of office and transitioning Serbia towards democracy and away from totalitarianism. Serbia is now a functioning democracy, scoring an above-the-region average of 6.41 out of 10 in the Democracy Index of 2018 and has consistently been one of the leading democracies in Eastern Europe over the past fifteen years. These results are a testament to Otpor!’s commitment to producing a sustainable, political culture shift in Serbia, one where Serbians lift up their fellow man and contribute productively to the progress of deliberation and active participation in Serbian society. These community-oriented, participatory methods of protest worked to produce a widespread movement, but also a higher quality movement in which individuals were devoted to and believed in the mission and goals.
Analysis and Lessons Learned:
Otpor! represents some of the purest forms of grassroots political engagement that the world has ever seen. Allowing the movement to be defined by the individuals that participated, developing new humorous tactics for political dissent, and providing a base for future action make Otpor! a great case study for all those interested in participatory action, civic engagement, and non-violent protest movements. Otpor! organizers cite different key aspects to the success of the movement. Jovanovic and Popovic both cite the unique, leaderless structure of organization as being the defining factor.  While Petrovic cites the targeted, humorous protest campaigns that allowed for easy participation as being “the core of the non-violent people’s movement.
One specific value comes to the forefront with Otpor!. That is their unique, leaderless structure of organization. All decisions were made democratically and no one person could ever claim to be a leader in any sense of the word. Otpor! mobilized participants to be leaders and these participants, in turn, mobilized new participants to also lead. To construct an organization in this sense goes against most common theories of organization building that place a heavy importance on a rigid hierarchy. However, Otpor! was able to make the right tactical calls at key points, and managed to make sure that all individuals participating were aware of and believed in the tactics of the moment. The humorous aspects of protests’ effects cannot be overstated as well. Similar tactics have also been seen in the 2018-2019 Hong Kong protests. One of the maxims of the Hong Kong protests “be like water” (i.e. adapt to the responses of the government and always find a way to progress, even if it’s not the most direct path) is valuable in understanding Otpor!’s humorous, indirect forms of protests. Otpor! worked in indirect, atypical methods that made it impossible for the Milosevic regime to effectively stop them. In this sense, Otpor! can be a valuable model for all protest and participatory action movements going forward. Nabatchi and Leighninger (2015) speak of how incorporating public participation can cause real government progress and Otpor! taking their cause on and providing real and meaningful change in their community is an exact example of what can be done when public participation is prioritized and valued in a movement.
Occupy Flagstaff House section on Participedia: https://participedia.net/case/4787
Empowering Civil Society and Combating Corruption through Right to Information Act in Rajasthan, India: https://participedia.net/case/4346
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 Nikolayenko, Olena. "The Rise Of Youth Movements In The Post Communist Region", , Center For Democracy Development, Stanford,19 June 2009
 Petrovic, D. (2012). 10 Years Smarter?. Otpor Campaigns: Meaning and Concept. Canvas Publishing. Retrieved from https://web.archive.org/web/20120331101753/http://www.newtactics.org/sites/newtactics.org/files/otpor campaigns.pdf.
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 Sell, Louis (22 February 2002). Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia – Louis Sell. ISBN 9780822332237. Pg. 170
The first version of this case entry was written by Drew Coker, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the entry are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.