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The Future of Revolutions

Updated: May 1, 2023

By Varshini Viswanath

From Australia’s increasing defence and military expenditure to dire situation in Afghanistan, violence or the threat of violence is pervasive in the world. I wanted to write about something more hopeful: the Otpor youth non-violent movement that started in Serbia. Otpor means ‘resistance’ and their logo is an upright closed fist. The Otpor movement contributed to the overthrow of Serbian dictator, Slobodan Milošević. Notably, the group used humour and pop culture to delegitimise the government and highlight its shortcomings.[1] It also gave people an opportunity to resist the regime without fear of a violent confrontation with the authorities. Otpor developed an enterprise called Canvas that has been exporting knowledge about non-violent revolutions to countries like Georgia and Egypt.[2] However, successful non-violent revolutions are not new — we witnessed such pacifism in the Indian independence struggles, Martin Luther King Jr’s work and in suffrage movements around the world. How does the Otpor movement work and what does it mean for the future of global youth movements?

The Otpor movement originated in Serbia when some university students wanted to resist changes to the university made by Slobodan Milošević in his attempts to suppress political opposition and dissent.[3] In a simple ‘prank’, they set up a barrel in the middle of the busiest shopping centre that read ‘Dinar for Retirement’ with Milosevic’s face on it. People could donate money for the chance to whack the face on the barrel. It generated collective and united political will as people saw each other resist the regime in some small way. It avoided violent confrontation with the security forces.[4] This simple but ingenious idea placed the forces in a situation where they would look weak regardless of their chosen response, whether that was removing the barrel or letting the ridicule continue. As the Otpor movement saw exponential popularity in two years, it cost Milosevic the 2000 election and his troubles with the Hague. By borrowing from great minds like Gene Sharp, the father of strategic non-violence and Gandhi, Otpor but uses tools such as humour, mockery, pop culture and simple strategies like the barrel prank to bring about a mental revolution.[5]

Otpor set up a non-profit non-governmental organisation called Canvas that has been exporting strategies of non-violent resistance and revolution to other parts of the world.[6] Their strategies were used in the successful civil youth movements in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004 – 2005, Lebanon in 2005 and Maldives in 2008. There is also some evidence that Otpor’s strategies were studied extensively by youth groups right before the Arab Spring.[7] There is increasing evidence that passive and non-violent movements are almost twice as effective as violent ones, depending on the causes and context of the conflict.[8] Nevertheless, violence remains pervasive for many reasons from human instinct to the military-industrial-entertainment complex and the idea of state monopoly on violence.[9] As university students ourselves, such movements are a hopeful reminder of how we can bring about change for causes we care about and dissect traditional narratives about the productivity of violent conflict.

[1] Majken Jul Sorensen, ‘Humor as a Serious Strategy of Non-Violent Resistance to Oppression’ (2008) 33(2) Peace & Change 167. [2] Ibid. [3] Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, Humor & Non-Violent Struggle in Serbia (Syracruse University Press, 2015) 18. [4] Ibid 223. [5] Ibid 205. [6] Olena Nikolayenko, “Origins of the Movement’s Strategy: the Case of the Serbian Youth Movement Otpor” (2012) 34(2) 150. [7] Don J. Waisanen, ‘(Trans)national Advocacy in the Ousting of Milošević: The Otpor Movement’s Global Recursions’ (2013) 64(2) Communication Studies 158. [8] Richard Jackson, ‘Pacifism: the Anatomy of a Subjugated Knowledge’ (2018) 6(2) Critical Studies on Security. [9] Ibid.

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