The extraordinary story of the overthrow of the Butcher of the Balkans by an avowedly nonviolent group of student revolutionaries is captured in a one-hour documentary film premiering nationally on Sunday, March 31 on PBS.
On October 9, 1998, a group of ten young people drinking beer in a Serbian cafe were among those who sparked a student-led movement that swept the country. Two years later it culminated in the democratic, nonviolent defeat of Slobodan Milosevic, the ruthless dictator known as the “Butcher of the Balkans” now standing trial in The Hague for war crimes and genocide.
Humor, satire, ridicule, and use of the internet were often the weapons of choice to undermine the Milosevic regime. Known as Otpor (“resistance”), the movement was rooted in both democratic idealism and a philosophy of nonviolent conflict based on the writings of American scholar Gene Sharp.
The story is now the subject of "Bringing Down a Dictator," a one-hour documentary narrated by Martin Sheen and written, produced and directed by Steve York. The Los Angeles preview of the film was presented at the UCLA James Bridges Theater on March 21. ("Bringing Down a Dictator" will premiere nationally on Sunday, March 31. KCET will air the film at 9:00 pm but viewers should check their local listings.) UCLA International Studies, including the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations, the Center for European and Russian Studies, and the ISOP development office, cosponsored the event.
Following the film, International Studies Vice Provost Geoffrey Garrett welcomed a panel that included executive producer Peter Ackerman, a scholar of strategic nonviolent conflict, filmmaker Steve York, and former activist leader Srdja Popovic, now a member of the Serbian Parliament.
The audience gave a standing ovation to Popovic, whose charisma and good humor--a humor that characterized a large part of Otpor -- shone through both in the film and during the discussion that followed. As an individual and a leader of a young movement that gave hope and courage to an entire nation, Popovic was one of the true heroes in the story.
Ridding the World of an Evil Regime – Without Violence
by Peter Ackerman, Ph.D.
A revealing documentary television special, “Bringing Down A Dictator” shows how a nonviolent, student-led movement in Serbia shattered the power base of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and how democratic organizing ejected him from office. All this happened less than two years ago, but most Americans are not even aware of the real story.
Dictators require two conditions to stay in power: the fear and acquiescence of the people they rule, and the willingness of police or security forces to follow orders and crack down on opposition. But the strategic use of nonviolent resistance can detach any dictator, however ruthless, from both those components of his power.
In Serbia, young people who were angry about the stagnant, hopeless society produced by Milosevic started Otpor (“resistance” in Serbian). They ridiculed the president with sidewalk birthday parties, showing a cake representing Yugoslavia being carved up during Milosevic’s reign. They plastered flat surfaces all over the country with stickers that stated, “He’s Finished.” Every Serb knew whom that meant—and the belief that Milosevic could not be opposed was dissolved.
Otpor mobilized thousands of civilians in scores of Serbian cities. “Citizens finally realized that they are not objects, but subjects of politics,” said activist Stanko Lazendic. They discovered within themselves the ability and willingness to stop being submissive. And when their leaders were arrested, friends and family members went down to the police stations, standing silently outside and showing the men in uniform that the opposition had deep roots, that it wasn’t just disaffected students but whole communities that stood against the dictator.
Yet Milosevic’s nonviolent foes did not assail the police or treat them as the enemy. “We couldn’t use force on someone who had three times more weapons than we did,” said Lazendic. “We knew what had happened in China, in Tiananmen.” Instead, they got “under their skins and under their uniforms, and tried to reach them somewhere deep, to say, ‘come on guys, we are together. This is our country’,” said Srdja Popovic, an Otpor leader.
The result: the loyalty of the police and security services to the dictator was eroded from within. One police general told Velimir Ilic, an oppositionist mayor, “please defeat Milosevic already, even I feel sick of him.” In the final days, when Milosevic tried to hold onto power after failing to sabotage an election, and hundreds of thousands of Serbs marched on the capital, Belgrade, he ordered the police to blockade the roads. But the police “knew that any kind of using force against these people would be self-destruction, and they would be losers together with Milosevic,” said Teofil Panic, a journalist. So they did not shoot. They disobeyed orders. They stood aside.
Within days Milosevic had fallen; within a few months, he was standing in an international courtroom in The Hague, hearing his indictment for war crimes. A man who had rained terror on the heads of Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars and his fellow Serbs—who some had called the “Butcher of the Balkans”—had been brought to the bar of world justice, without a shot being fired.
The intelligence of the Serbian people’s strategy for ridding their country of Milosevic relied on a different understanding of power. A dictator can survive external attack, because his military and his people rally around the only available symbol of national survival. But no dictator can survive when he no longer has the consent to submit of his people. And massive civilian opposition can be roused with the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent resistance—all of which can be quietly assisted, even funded from abroad, as happened in Serbia.
Dictators, including those who help or harbor terrorists, can be brought down—by the hands of their own people.
(edited with permission.)
Read more about the film and the story behind it at http://www.pbs.org/weta/dictator/.
Published: Thursday, March 28, 2002