A tremendous amount of attention has focused on Greece lately. Looking at the successful anarchist movement there, we can nurture utopian visions to strengthen our resolve; but if we only consider apparent success stories, we will not be prepared for the challenges ahead. The entire Balkan peninsula is a sort of laboratory of crisis. Studying it, we can discern some of the possible futures that may await us now that North America seems to be entering an era of crisis as well. The vibrant anarchist movement in Greece represents one possible future, in which a powerful social movement establishes hubs of resistance. But only a few hundred kilometers north Serbia shows another: a nightmare of ethnic conflict, nationalist war, and false resistance movements in which the anarchist alternative has sunk almost as deep as Atlantis. The roots of the differences between these countries are hundreds of years old, but we can identify some recent factors. Only a generation ago, both were ruled by dictatorships: Greece by a US-based fascist dictatorship that collapsed under pressure from rebellious students, winning youth revolt the respect of the general population to this day; Yugoslavia by a socialist dictatorship, in which Tito maintained power by playing various groups off against each other. When the Berlin Wall came down and the socialist government collapsed, the country was torn apart by ethnic strife. By the end of the 1990s, Serbia was reduced to a much smaller nation ruled by a nationalistic communist, Slobodan Milošević. On paper, what happened next reads like an anarchist fairy tale. An ostensibly decentralized and nonhierarchical underground youth group named Otpor (“Resistance”) carried out a propaganda campaign aimed at rousing popular revolt, despite aggressive repression from the authorities. After a rigged election, hundreds of thousands of people converged on the capital and intense streetfighting ensued. An unemployed vehicle operator, nicknamed “Joe” by his colleagues, drove his bulldozer through a hail of bullets into the headquarters of the state television station at the head of a furious crowd. Other protesters set the Parliament on fire and violently wrested control of the streets from police. The authorities surrendered, the government toppled, and soon a former anarchist was prime minister. - In fact, organizers at the center of Otpor were directed by organizations affiliated with the US government, from whom they received millions of dollars. By ostensibly limiting itself to attacking the established order, Otpor drew participants of all ideological persuasions, while preparing the way for the implementation of capitalist democracy. The entire event was carefully choreographed to smooth Serbia’s transition into the neoliberal market. Afterwards, the same model was exported almost anywhere a regime was not cooperating with the US agenda; Otpor was followed by Kmara in Georgia, Pora in Ukraine, Zubr in Belarus, MJAFT! in Albania, Oborona in Russia, KelKel in Kyrgyzstan, Bolga in Uzbekistan, and Nabad-al-Horriye in Lebanon. In each of these cases genuine local unrest was channeled into a proxy war serving the interests of powerful outsiders. Yet most of the participants must have felt that they were genuinely fighting for liberation. Ljubisav Đokić, the man who drove his bulldozer into the state television headquarters, declared shortly afterwards that the uprising had made no difference. Today Serbia is no closer to meaningful social change. Nationalism and fascism are still rampant, the population is more discouraged and apathetic than ever, and local anarchists are still struggling to gain traction in an unfavorable social terrain. All this suggests that anarchists in the US need to develop a more nuanced understanding of social upheaval. Fixating on burning cars and fighting police can obscure the important dynamics at the root of events. The insurrectionist conviction that confrontations are intrinsically desirable offers little insight into what counts as a confrontation. Over and over throughout history, anarchists and other rebels who mistook violent clashes for real transformation have served as an expendable front line in essentially conservative revolutions. We need to refine our analyses so that when we fight, our efforts cannot serve our enemies. Is it possible that, as the police were disappearing activists and the nation was teetering on the brink of revolution, the most worthwhile thing Serbian anarchists could have hoped to accomplish was to involve a few more people in their long-term networks? Bear in mind how difficult it must have been to stay focused on such a seemingly trivial goal under the circumstances. Or could anarchists have somehow taken the initiative in the struggle against Milosevic, miraculously outflanking an organization with millions of dollars of foreign backing in a nation consumed with nationalist fervor? - In hopes of shedding more light on these issues, we’ve conducted this interview with a former member of Otpor currently active in the Serbian anarchist movement. More on Proxy War.
Lope Vargas’s A War Nearby, an analysis of the Balkan situation written at the turn of the century
“The Workers’ Movement in Serbia and ex-Yugoslavia”: A history spanning from 1871 to 1993
”The Anarchist Tradition on Yugoslav Soil”: a shorter history from the Kate Sharpley Library
A lengthy and analytical consideration of Otpor
An academic comparison between Otpor and the student uprising in Belgrade of June 1968
Anarchy in Bulgaria: An Interview
Interview with Relja from the group Antifa Zrenjanin in Zrenjanin, Serbia.For more historical background on anarchism in Serbia, skip to the appendix.
How did anarchists respond to the wars of that ripped Yugoslavia apart in the 1990s? Did this early activity have any influence on the context in which Otpor appeared?Unfortunately, during the wars I was young and not involved in the anarchist movement, so I can only tell you what I've heard and read from older anarchists. Anarchists were involved in opposing the war practically from the start of Yugoslav crisis. For many of them, then very young and coming from the punk scene, this was the time to “get serious.” Communication between anarchists across former Yugoslavia continued throughout the conflicts. - One of the first projects, in the first half of the 1990s, was the fanzine Over the Walls of Nationalism and War, started in Croatia. Anarchists were involved in the wider antiwar movement, often cooperating with antiwar groups like Women in Black (based in Belgrade). During the NATO bombing of Serbia, one of the main sources of information for people outside Serbia was the English-language anarchist newsletter Zaginflatch (Zagreb Information Potlatch) providing firsthand information from the Serbian anarchists and antiwar activists . Later, lots of anarchists were also involved in campaigns against the draft. At the end of the 1990s, meetings of anarchists from all over former Yugoslavia were held in the Bosnian village of Zelenkovac. But as the anarchist movement was very small in Serbia, their activities didn't influence, as far as I am aware, the context in which Otpor appeared.
How did you participate in Otpor or in other forms of resistance to Milosevic?I was very young when I started to be interested in politics and also to do some practical political stuff. And although this was “anti-government” politics it wasn't radical in any way. Basically, along with the majority of my friends, I was a kind of nationalist, considering Milosevic to be a traitor and a “dirty Commie.” My first practical involvement in anti-Milosevic politics started when I was thirteen years old; it consisted of distributing leaflets and propaganda and participating in local protests and demonstrations organized by various opposition parties and student groups. I particularly remember one leaflet my friends made in form of a WANTED poster to the effect that Milosevic was wanted “dead and only dead” and that his crime was “treason to the Serbian people.” Then Otpor appeared and I was involved in the local group in my home town of Zrenjanin. I was 16 years old and my friends and I were among the youngest people there. Our activities mainly consisted of putting posters and stickers on walls, graffiting the town with various slogans and with the famous Otpor clenched fist symbol, and of course participating in demonstrations. That was when police started to routinely stop me in the street, search me, ask me idiotic questions… it happened almost on a daily basis.
What were you doing on October 5, 2000? At the time, did you think that a positive revolutionary change was occurring? What happened afterwards?On October 5, 2000, I was in Belgrade, with my friends and my dad, in front of the Parliament building among several hundred thousand people in a cloud of tear gas, watching football hooligans storm the building and people beating very, very scared cops who were trying to surrender. I remember thinking that the worst was still to come as army helicopters were flying over our heads. But then it was all over, and people started partying with no police on the streets… a strange day. Of course, with my political beliefs then, I joined the majority of people in Serbia in believing that this was a positive change… and of course it wasn't. Two years later I moved to Belgrade to study, met some anarchists, and soon my perspective on the world started to change dramatically. I recently heard a British journalist speaking about his political transformation, and although his change was completely different from mine—he changed from a Trotskyist to a conservative—I think that his metaphor is quite good. He said something about this kind of radical change of perspective being like falling through a floor which suddenly gives way beneath your feet, and falling so fast that when you hit the floor below it gives way beneath you as well, and that a huge number of things that you believed were not questionable suddenly become questionable. But my personal change coincided with the growing of apathy and pessimism in the Serbian society and people, now twice betrayed, first by Milosevic and then by the new government.
How was Otpor organized?Otpor had a quasi-non-hierarchical and egalitarian image. This was a clever political decision in a period when the opposition political scene was full of leaders who were considered to be incompetent in their struggle against Milosevic. So, this group (and later organization) of young people, primarily students, appeared with a seemingly new approach to politics. Members of Otpor didn't have any formal ranks in the organization; they were only called “activists of Otpor.” But the truth was that this was a highly hierarchical organization with a small minority making all the decisions. For example, I don't remember any discussions with older members of Otpor in Zrenjanin. They just gave us propaganda material and told us what to do with it, and we considered this to be normal in a way. And of course Otpor was financed with CIA money. All major decisions and all the proclamations were made by this small minority as well.
Should we be suspicious of resistance groups that claim not to have formal structures or hierarchies? Do groups have to be transparent to the public, in order to deserve trust? How does this affect the security of those who participate?I do not think that we should be automatically suspicious of groups that claim not to have formal hierarchies, because this is an anarchist way of organizing, and I think that it is proven that this kind of organizing is possible and can be very effective. The Otpor case, which didn't have anything to do with anarchism or any kind of radical politics or anti-authoritarian organizing, doesn't disprove this at all. As far as transparency to the public (and therefore the state) is concerned, I think that every case needs to be judged individually. In my opinion, the most important variables are the local political context, the type of political group, and what kind of activities you engage in. Different regimes have different ways of dealing with radical political groups; it is not the same to organize in Turkey or in Greece as it is in Serbia.
How much were anarchists or radicals involved in Otpor? Were there other resistance efforts going on at the time, or did it absorb all of them?I am not aware if any anarchists were involved in Otpor, but I know former members of Otpor who are now anarchists or close to anti-authoritarian politics. As I said, there was an antiwar and anti-nationalist movement in Serbia long before Otpor appeared—but this antiwar and anti-nationalist trend was a minority inside the anti-Milosevic movement in Serbia. And the anarchists and radicals involved in the anti-nationalist part of the movement were a tiny minority inside a minority. When Otpor appeared, most of the resistance efforts carried out by young people were absorbed by Otpor. The thing that is very important here is Otpor’s ideological relation to the nationalist and conservative majority of the anti-Milosevic movement. In the ideological field, Otpor was also very far away from any kind of anti-authoritarian politics. Basically, the ideology that Otpor propagated was a form of anti-communism quite typical for that period in Serbia (and today to a degree), which combined a conservative world outlook, neoliberal free market ideology, cultural racism, elitism, Eurocentrism, and nationalism. One of the typical ideological points of Otpor’s program was that a war was taking place between two Serbias. One was a backward, Asian Serbia—Turkish, communist, collectivist, and pro-Milosevic—and the other was the forward-looking, modern, European, pro-free market Serbia that would build a new elite to guide a united nation.
How did the legacy of Otpor and the downfall of Milosevic frame the context for radical organizing after 2000? How did it make it easier for anarchists to organize, and how did it make it harder?What is the legacy of Milosevic and his downfall and the ascension to power of his supposed enemies, including elite participants in Otpor? As I said earlier, it is a depressed and apathetic population. This is caused by the continuation and intensification of economic poverty and deprivation, the privatization of communal property, and state repression and terror, but it also reflects the frustration of the dominant ideological centers (nationalist, conservative, and fascist) with the fact that the Serbian imperialist project has failed miserably. So unfortunately this situation not only contributes to the development of mass cynicism but also fosters new forms of fascism and right-wing extremism. The Otpor experience doesn't help us much in anarchist and anti-authoritarian organizing in Serbia today. We operate in different circumstances and are in need of completely different strategies of resistance; in my opinion, this means constructing of networks of solidarity not only between radicals, but more importantly, between ordinary people who are fighting their “small” local fights in their factories, neighborhoods, and elsewhere. And based on this, creating an anti-authoritarian movement in the future that is centered around solidarity and mutual aid as its core values and principals.
When the Milosevic regime attempted to repress youthful opposition in 2000, this provoked a popular backlash. Did this delegitimize government repression of radicals after the change of the government, as well?Milosevic’s repression of his opposition did not delegitimize repression of radicals or any other kind of dissent for that matter. Just recently we had a case in which six anarchists from Belgrade spent six months in jail for supposedly throwing a Molotov cocktail at the Greek embassy—the damage was 20 Euro—for which they were charged for international terrorism. After some public pressure, they are free now and the charges are dropped, but the repression of Roma people and striking or protesting workers is practically a daily event, with new laws making it more difficult to organize strikes and protests. The rationale is that Milosevic’s regime was illegitimate, dictatorial, and communist, and that therefore the “revolution” of October 5th was legitimate, but that dissent against this government is not legitimate because the new regime is “democratic, pro-European, and accepted by the western democracies.”
Compare and contrast the Serbian anarchist movement today to anarchist organizing elsewhere in the Balkans, such as Croatia.In both countries we speak the same language and share quite a lot of the recent and not-so-recent history. So there are many similarities, and anarchists from Serbia and Croatia have a long history of friendship and cooperation. In both countries recent anarchism mostly originated from the anarcho-punk scene. And as that scene was more developed in Croatia, today anarchism is more present there then in Serbia. This “punk thing” has always been an issue here. Personally, I find this question boring and unnecessary. A lot of anarchists spend a lot of time attacking the punk scene as “lifestylist,” not serious, and so on; in my opinion this is senseless, because none of the anarchists coming from the anarcho-punk scene claims that “punk” is their politics. Also, some of the ex-punks are now “anti-punks”. I find this whole thing very silly. So the movement in Croatia is more decentralized, with more active groups, better organization, and a few infoshops across Croatia while there are currently none in Serbia. In my mind the reason for this is a more developed anarcho-punk scene as a basis for the development of anarchism. I am not implying that an anarcho-punk scene is necessary for the development of anarchist politics, or that it is a necessarily a good thing. Of course, we have many problems in this case, the classic one being how to overcome subcultural isolation and connect to the wider society. But I don't think this problem is inherent to the punk subculture alone. In a way, the old-fashioned “serious” leftists with their own rituals are also a very closed group that has a lot of trouble connecting with the rest of society as well. Maybe even more trouble! In both Serbia and Croatia, we have one trend of anarchists organizing in small affinity groups and another trend of anarchists trying to develop anarcho-syndicalist unions but effectively being organized in small affinity groups as well, at least for the time being. In Greece, the anarchist movement didn't develop from the anarcho-punk scene, but from the radical leftist movement. Recently I spoke with two anarchist friends involved in the so-called “social anarchist” part of the movement in Greece, close to the Anti-Authoritarian Movement; they told me that they consider it a good thing for an anarchist movement to develop from a punk scene, like in Serbia and Croatia, because in their opinion that makes a movement more open to new ideas. I'm not sure if this is true.
What is the influence of the Greek anarchist movement in Serbia?We maintain friendly relations with the anti-authoritarians from Greece. Some of them participated in our annual Zrenjanin Antifascist Festival, and they also organized a benefit event for ZAF in Greece. They invited us to participate in an event they are organizing in Thessaloníki. We are also discussing organizing some regional anarchist events together. The situation in which the anarchist movement developed in Greece was quite different from the situation in ex-Yugoslavia. Greece was ruled by a right-wing dictatorship, while Yugoslavia had a “communist” regime, and then later a former communist as dictator. These situations led to very different outcomes: today in Greece they have probably the biggest anarchist movement in the world, while in Serbia a lot of right-wing, fascist (youth) groups have appeared, caused by the re-traditionalization and fascization of our society that happened in the 1990s. You can see this as a reaction to the “communist” and “socialist” authoritarian regime. Nevertheless, the experience of the movement in Greece is very important to us. As is the building of wider Balkan networks of solidarity.
In a context of rampant nationalism, how can anarchists connect with “the” people without tacitly approving nationalist politics?We should not perceive “the people” as an abstract entity like “the Nation,” but as ordinary people with their own local, everyday, “small” but very important issues and problems. In that sense, a group of radicals active in their local community is not something separate from “the people.” When you have an approach like this you will always deal with people who are not anarchists or radicals, and also with some who espouse even nationalist or conservative views. But when you meet them individually and personally, you can understand where they are coming from better and they can also understand how your politics are different from the politics of the politicians—and although maybe they won't agree with all your positions, they will understand them better. This doesn't mean we should be tolerant of nationalism—just the opposite!—but it means that in order to build a social movement based on solidarity we must engage with the local community and “face towards it.” Maybe this sounds simplistic, but this is the way I see it now.
What relationships do different nationalist groups through former Yugoslavia have to each other? Do nationalist groups in former Yugoslavia focus more on fighting against each other, or against radicals and immigrants? What can we learn from this?Well, they hate each other, of course—not only because of the recent wars but also because their nationalist identities are very much based on hating each other. And the absurd but logical thing is that besides their mutual hate, their world views are identical. Croatia is not a less nationalist society then Serbia, but in a way Croatian nationalists and fascists are currently less frustrated (although I believe fascists are “frustrated” by definition) than their Serbian counterparts, because the Croatian nationalist project was quite successful: they succeeded in creating an ethnically cleansed nation-state. On the other hand, Serbian nationalists and fascists are intensely frustrated by the total collapse of their nationalist project. So they turn their attention more to the “internal enemy”: LGBT people, Roma people, antifascists, anarchists, and other “traitors.” Of course, fascists always concentrate on the internal enemies, but less successful fascists do this more then others, in my opinion. For example, it’s relatively safe for anarchists in Croatia to stage public events, but in Serbia you always need to think about potential assaults by the Nazis. Also, Zagreb Pride is a successful annual event despite fascists regularly organizing against it, but Belgrade Pride hasn't happened yet. On the first attempt to organize it we had real lynching scenes in the streets of Belgrade, and last year it was banned by the authorities because “they didn't feel that they could protect the participants.”
What strategies have worked in Serbia for building antifascist resistance? Which strategies have failed?After a lot of discussions with my friends, I came to the following provisional conclusions. One of the usual mistakes is to confuse “militancy” with radical politics, that is to believe that mere use of violence against the fascists means that your approach is politically radical. I already said that I think engaging the local community is crucial: thus the “fascist problem” must not be dealt with separately. If we connect the problem of fascism with the wider problems of capitalism and exploitation, which is not hard to do from an anarchist perspective because this is exactly the point of radical anti-fascism, and especially if we connect it to local manifestations of these wider problems, we create the conditions to re-establish anti-fascism as an important part of people’s struggles against oppression in general. This does not exclude militancy, which is a necessity in combating fascism. But if we put mere violence in the center of our antifascist “politics” without a wider radical critique of capitalism and its concrete consequences, we risk being perceived as one hooligan or subcultural group fighting another—or even worse, as one group of extremists fighting another—and thus, becoming alienated from the rest of the society. And despite the use of violence being a necessity in combating fascism, it is also good to remember that the use of nonviolent radical methods is also essential in creating social movements. Of course, I think it is equally bad to try to present your anti-fascism as “respectable” by refraining from violence and cleansing it of radical elements to build an alliance with liberal anti-fascism. In Serbia, this will produce the same results as I described above: alienation from the wider society.