BY JONAS BLANK
Though today’s headlines are filled with stories of violence in the Middle East, many Americans may not remember that one of history’s bloodiest recent waves of violence was finally ended by students who never fired a shot. Although most Americans probably credit the fall of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic to international military efforts, they fail to realize that Milosevic persisted in his role as dictator of Serbia after those efforts ended, and even further solidified his power.
What finally brought him down were the efforts of a student movement called Otpor, which are chronicled in the forthcoming PBS special “Bringing Down A Dictator.” The film will be screened at Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy tonight at 6:30 p.m., followed by a panel discussion with the film’s executive producer and director, as well as student leader Ivan Marovic, one of the founders of Otpor.
“It’s a story that is not well known in the United States,” said executive producer Peter Ackerman. “When you ask people why Milosevic was taken from power, people say it was because of the bombing over Kosovo. That ended in June of 1999. He did not leave power until October of 2000. The story we tell is what happened in between.”
Once Ackerman conceived the basic thesis for the project, award-winning writer/director Steve York went to Serbia to shoot. What he discovered was a student resistance movement that used humor, rock music and a bilingual web site to successfully depose one of the world’s worst dictators. The group held sidewalk birthday parties for Milosevic, with cakes carved up like the nation of Yugoslavia. They toilet papered the Electoral Commission building and plastered solid surfaces everywhere with anti-Milosevic stickers. When Milosevic’s administration cited a mosquito infestation as an excuse not to convene the legislature, Otpor activists armed with cans of insecticide stormed the building.
“[The humor] was pretty unique to them, but not unusual. It was a strike at the sense of invincibility and terror Milosevic carried among the population,” Ackerman said.
The film’s footage reflects the efficacy of the movement’s tactics. Ackerman said he is particularly proud of footage showing police refusing to fire on demonstrators and refusing to support blockades.
“This movement succeeded because it distributed its resistance throughout all of Serbia, involved every strata of population,” Ackerman said. Though he said many of Otpor’s tactics mirrored those of other groups, Ackerman said he was surprised by the students’ sophistication. “I didn’t expect the sophistication, and their ability to manage a movement that required a sequencing of behaviors over time to keep ratcheting up the pressure against Milosevic. These are very, very smart young people.”
“Bringing Down A Dictator” represents Ackerman’s second film collaboration with York, who also produced a three-hour TV series based around Ackerman’s 1994 book, “A Force More Powerful.”
“The difficulty was in the editing room,” Ackerman said. “We had to give seven years of history of what happened in Yugoslavia in a way that was both comprehensive and was also not so long-winded that people would lose interest.”
Along with his long history of scholarship on strategic non-violent conflict, Ackerman currently serves as chair of the Fletcher School’s Board of Overseers, as well as other foundations. For his next project, he said he and York are hoping to work on a CD-ROM war-game about nonviolent conflict.
“The idea is to let people who are dissidents against dictators actually play out the game in their own circumstances. Just like violent resistance has strategy and tactics, so does non-violent resistance,” he said.
Ackerman added that despite the violence plaguing the Middle East, there are places there where non-violent movements can gain a foothold.
“In Iran, we’ve already seen a variety of mass protests among students and people under 30,” he said. “There are all sorts of opportunities in Iran to put pressure on clerics. Iraq is much more problematic. But just because [Saddam Hussein] is totally brutal doesn’t mean he has full control of his own military and his own police.”
Of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Ackerman said that although he declined to take a stand on the issue, he did believe the Palestinians’ tactics were counter-productive. “At the end, the Palestinians are making a mistake trying to improve their position with suicide bombers,” Ackerman said. “They need to give traction to the moderate/left wing in Israel…. The suicide bombing has pushed the entire Israeli population to the right.”