A leader of the opposition movement that overthrew the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic has been a friend of the Iranian freedom cause and sees many parallels between the two struggles for freedom. [From IranChannel.org]
Ivan Marovic (pictured) is a leader of the Otpor nonviolent resistance movement, and has been a champion of using nonviolence against dictatorships. He traveled to Washington in January to attend to the Iran Democratic Transition Conference, held in association with the Confederation of Iranian Students (CIS).
CIS interviewed Marovic about the organization and success of the Serbian movement and the lessons Iranians can learn from it. Among those lessons are that:
- student protests can become broad-based opposition movements relatively quickly and with very little funding;
- creating a united movement can be time-consuming, bitter and frustrating;
- youthful organizers should expect (and ignore) being defamed as foreign agents;
- older and more established opponents of the regime are likely to oppose the young people’s efforts, at least at first;
- some of the best progress is made by learning from one’s own mistakes;
- months of protests can end in futility but, with organization and effort, can become victorious over time;
- fear and apathy – the biggest obstacles to success – can be overcome;
- actions need not be large or dramatic to be successful, but they must be constant;
- the more the regime arrests opposition activists, the stronger the opposition becomes;
- nonviolent resistance to a dictatorship can take a long time;
- foreign financial support is often not forthcoming or not needed;
- military intervention against the regime can actually weaken the opposition movement as people rally in defense of their nation against foreign attack;
- humor is an important weapon against the regime.
CIS provided the text of this interview to IranChannel.org as an exclusive.
Confederation of Iranian Students (CIS): When you first organized your movement, both the Opposition and the Regime tagged and accused you of being foreign agents or even puppets. How did you manage to convince, unite, and organize different Opposition groups?
Ivan Marovic (IM): Yes, we were accused of being foreign agents, but we managed to overcome this, mainly because we publicly stated our goals and kept asking everybody to find one single thing in our goals that is against Serbian national interest. For instance we would ask: “Is having free elections against Serbian national interest?” We would make posters saying “Otpor (Resistance), because I love Serbia.” This was to show that resisting the dictatorship was an act of patriotism, not an act of treason.
And uniting different groups wasn’t easy at all. We spent a lot of time and energy talking to different groups, often at loggerheads among each other, and over time managed to bring them closer and convinced them to start cooperating. We tried to find people in those groups more open to cooperation, and then helped them boost their credibility both inside their organizations and in the society as a whole. These people were crucial for the success of uniting different factions of the opposition.
CIS: How did you come up with the idea of creating Otpor?
IM: The idea was born after an unsuccessful student protest which lasted for four months. That’s four months of daily demonstrations in late 1996 and early 1997. This protest failed to overthrow Milosevic, and his grip on power became even stronger. Repression became even more brutal after the failure. That’s why in 1998 we decided to create a movement, not just to organize another protest, because we knew that this struggle was going to be a long one and that movement is what was needed in order to be able to apply pressure and withstand attacks over a longer period of time.
That’s why we created a resistance movement and named it Otpor, which is Serbian for resistance. We also took a clenched fist as our symbol.
CIS: When did you choose the fist logo?
IM: At the very beginning of Otpor, in October 1998. We asked our friend Nenad Petrovic, called “Duda,” to draw a clenched fist as a symbol of unity in strength, because all fingers are stronger when together in a fist. He designed it inspired by the “White Hand of Saruman” from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
CIS: How many were there at the beginning, in the founding group?
IM: There was a dozen of us in the very beginning, and we grew slowly in the first few months. So, after several weeks we had an operating group of less than fifty people.
CIS: What difficulties did you face from the start?
IM: Our biggest obstacles were apathy and fear. People were afraid to participate because of the repression. Those who were brave enough were apathetic because of the previous failed attempts and because many opposition groups were fighting each other, so few people believed that change is possible.
CIS: Did you have any financial support at the beginning? Or later?
IM: No, we haven’t. We actually didn’t have an office for the first year. We did receive some help later on, first locally and then in the last few months before Milosevic was brought down, we finally got aid from western foundations.
CIS: What kind of support did you have at the beginning? Or later?
IM: We did have some support from a handful of local independent media, but they were soon banned and taken over by the regime. The editor in chief of one of those media, Slavko Curuvija was even killed.
CIS: How did you represent yourself and your group to the national and the international community?
IM: Through actions – we were an organization in action. We wanted to be present everywhere. But, because we were small, at least in the beginning, we used street theater to comment on political situation. Actions were small, short and widespread all over the country. They were humorous and satirical in nature and aimed at onlookers who would then spread our message to their friends. That’s how we became prominent.
CIS: When did you feel that you had become a movement?
IM: It was in the fall of 1999, a year after we were officially formed, when I was traveling to south Serbia and saw Otpor graffiti in a town where we thought we didn’t have a branch. It turned out that some local kids made a branch of Otpor on their own. We then admitted them to the organization, but this event proved to me that Otpor was spreading all over the country.
CIS: From which direction(s) did you get attacked? From the oppostion? From the regime? Or both?
IM: Both. Opposition didn’t like us because they felt we were occupying their space. But, there was hardly anything they could do because they were powerless. They finally had to work with us when we became strong. The regime underestimated us in the beginning, but later they launched a frontal attack on us naming us a terrorist organization (although we were strictly nonviolent) and arresting every activist of Otpor they could find.
CIS: What kind of media support did you receive, after the opposition boycotted your organization?
IM: We had our misunderstanding with the opposition, but that didn’t impact the coverage of Otpor by the independent media, since the opposition didn’t have much credibility and influence over them. They followed our activities because we were effective and therefore newsworthy, risking persecution. State run media portrayed us as terrorists, but people believed those accounts less and less as they started sounding more and more ridiculous.
CIS: What percentage of the opposition supported you?
IM: At the very beginning we had support of only a handful of opposition leaders, but this percentage grew over time. We never got full support, but towards the end it was significant.
CIS: Did the regime try to use violence to crush down your Freedom Movement? If yes, how far? Which methods did you adopt?
IM: Although members of Otpor were detained on a regular basis, repression became disturbing in May 2000 when Otpor was declared a terrorist organization and hundreds of our activists were arrested. However, this was too late for the regime, the movement was so strong that there wasn’t enough room in jails to put Otpor members and new people were joining as the number of arrested activists grew.
CIS: How important was the support of the international community in your victory?
IM: It was very important, but not essential. Serbia was under UN sanctions and in complete isolation, only a few embassies operated in Serbia. There was hardly any engagement with the regime and then there was the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 which created a lot of problems for democratic forces in Serbia.
CIS: How do you compare your Freedom Movement with the Freedom Movement of Iran?
IM: There are some similarities and some differences between Iran and Serbia and between our two movements. It is difficult to make an exact comparison, but I can say that Iran’s movement is making a transition from a protest to a movement, a transition which was very important in our case – when we learned that the struggle was going to be long, we were ready to wage it.
CIS: If you had lost hope on all your non-violent efforts, what would you have done? How would you have gone on with your Freedom Movement?
IM: We never lost hope. Nonviolence had no alternative for us.
CIS: How effective was the NATO military strike?
IM: It hindered our efforts and helped Milosevic raise the level of repression because country was under attack. Milosevic came out of the bombing stronger because he was seen by the people as someone defending the country from the foreign threat.
CIS: How can your experience help the Iranian Freedom Movement?
IM: I think that sharing experience from another country is helpful because it helps unravel some underlying universal forces at play that do not depend on local circumstances. These can tell us a lot about why and how certain political events unfold, how regimes loose their viability and how movements gain their momentum.
CIS: How effective was the participation of your student movement in unifying the Opposition which led to the final victory?
IM: One can say that the students led by Otpor united the opposition, and united opposition became victorious. I think that the fact that Otpor was led by young people, students, who have more contacts and act quickly and boldly made it so effective.
CIS: How dependent was your movement on the awareness of the masses?
IM: This awareness grew over time, we tried to increase it. That’s why in the beginning we used street theater I mentioned earlier. After awareness we tried to increase readiness to take action. We had one million people in Belgrade in the end. These people were not just aware of what was going on, they were ready to take actions, join the general strike and force Milosevic to step down.
CIS: What alternative did you propose to the people? How did you come with the idea of this alternative?
IM: It was at the same time difficult and easy to propose the alternative. It was easy because the situation was so bad that we just proposed return to normalcy. Normal country was our alternative. But it was difficult because people had lost faith that things were ever coming back to normal in Serbia. We succeeded when people started believing in the possibility of normalcy.