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Serbs Teaching Ukraine Protesters Civil Disobedience

by Vesna Peric Zimonjic

on Ukraine Election Crisis

(IPS) BELGRADE -- A Serbian youth group that helped the opposition topple former president Slobodan Milosevic has now 'exported' its ways of protest to Ukraine.

After the anti-Milosevic protests four years back, the Serbian group Otpor (Resistance) went on to help the Georgian student group Kmara (Enough) protest last year against former leader Eduard Shevardnadze, who was later replaced by Mikhail Saakasvhili.

This time the Otpor handwriting is visible in Ukrainian capital Kiev where it is backing hundreds of thousands of people demand a recount of the vote in the controversial elections. The demand follows allegations that electoral fraud helped Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich, who contested the presidential election.

Yanukovich's fears that Otpor was helping the Ukrainian group Pora (It's Time) became clear when two Otpor activists were expelled from Ukraine during the first round of elections Oct. 31.

The Otpor influence seems to have worked to an extent. Several members with 'Pora' written on their caps were seen on the stage with opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Pora activists set up 27 tents representing the 27 provinces of Ukraine in Independence Square in Kiev in a mock recount of votes.

This kind of civil disobedience is still uncommon in former communist states. Otpor broke new ground when it motivated masses of people to block traffic in city squares in protest against election fraud four years back.

Windows in shopping areas all over Belgrade and in major cities were covered with posters and stickers during the anti-Milosevic protests saying "He's finished." Hundreds of thousands of people wore similar protest badges for two weeks. Otpor organized symbolic football matches in public places with one side playing for Milosevic and one against, and of course the Milosevic side always lost.

Otpor activists then helped the opposition pull off a general strike that brought Serbia to a standstill two days before Milosevic fell from power.

"We helped the Ukrainian youth group Pora in organizing the (protest) campaign," former Otpor leader Sinisa Sikman told IPS. "But our help was training and advice on how to organise non-violent protests, how to be skilful in the campaign where they (Pora) had to identify their aims and goals."

Like many other Otpor activists, Sikman joined the Centre for Non-violent Resistance, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that provided training in Serbia and in other countries to 14 Pora leaders.

"The skills we teach them mostly deal with how to promote the goals, how to organize a successful campaign, motivate voters to turn out at the elections, things like that," he added. "We offer knowledge how to organize a movement, develop mass actions, and connect to people who may help."

In Serbia, Otpor resistance produced a clenched fist as symbol of protest with the slogan "He's finished" (Milosevic). Pora is protesting with slogans like "The clock is ticking" (for the Prime Minister to leave office).

"But it is not true that we are exporters of revolution, as media often like to say," Danijela Nenadic, head of the Centre for Non-violent Resistance told IPS. "There is no such recipe," she added. "Each country has its own problems, people have to deal with them and we are only finding common ground to find out how to attract or motivate the dissatisfied."

This was not hard in Ukraine, she said, because of the many "common grievances" shared with Serbs. "Both wanted to end isolation of their countries, to turn to Europe...that was the basis for slogans, messages and campaigns. But slogans and messages differ from country to country and have to be synchronized with local knowledge."

Otpor activists say a campaign can succeed only when people dissatisfaction passes a critical point. Only past that will authorities acknowledge that change is unavoidable.

In Ukraine that must mean at least a million people on the streets, Otpor activists say. In Serbia several hundred thousand were enough in 2000. Ukraine has a population of 48 million, compared to eight million in Serbia.

Pora is believed to have some 10,000 members nationwide, while Otpor had 22,000 before the downfall of Milosevic.

Former Otpor activists have not limited themselves to sharing resistance methods within Europe. Through the Centre for Applied Non-violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), former Otpor campaigner Srdja Popovic has set up a loose international group of a dozen trainers. They were involved in Georgia last year, and some are working now in Zimbabwe.

The group has contacts with similar movements in Belarus and in other countries that Popovic does not name because "dictators learn fast from the experience of others and we don't want to help them by telling them in advance."

Sikman and Popovic say training is financed with money collected by groups that have contacted and needed them. "It is not for us to ask, but simply to train and show how good ideas can be developed into proper actions," Sikman said.

CANVAS plans to issue a manual based on its own experience and training, "so the strategy could become available worldwide."

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Albion Monitor November 30, 2004 (

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