The Serbian Experience: Revolution? No, Networking

by Miljenko Dereta
Director Civic Initiatives, Belgrade

On September 24, 2000, national elections for Yugoslav president and federal parliament and local elections for town councils in Serbia marked the end of Slobodan Milosevic’s dictatorship. Vojislav Kostunica was elected the new president by a landslide margin and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) won a majority in both the federal parliament and in most local municipal councils.

Milosevic tried up until October 5 to ward off his defeat by manipulating the vote count, but in a massive display of protest, over 500,000 people came to Belgrade. People occupied and burned down two key symbols of Milosevic’s power, the Federal Parliament and the Central TV station. The police and army laid down their weapons and the regime, finally, conceded.

What was our experience? Was it a Revolution as many people call it? I don’t think so. Let us remember that, like the civic protestors in 1996-97, people also went into the street this time to defend their vote for change, their electoral victory. Citizens showed political maturity, determination, and courage in different forms of civic disobedience to demand a peaceful transfer of power, according to the dictator’s own rules. Their vote for change was a sign of political evolution – the result of ten years of grassroots work of many NGOs.

These elections were also marked by the active participation of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), which organized GOTV (Get Out The Vote) campaigns throughout the country. The high voter turnout (74 percent, including 82 percent of eligible first-time voters) is generally recognized to be the result of active NGO campaigns that informed, educated, and encouraged people to vote for change, and, importantly, organized an alternative mechanism for monitoring and counting of election results. All this was achieved in cooperation with democratic political actors that respected the role and understood the potential of NGOs in the elections. They accepted the non-partisan position of NGOs and created no obstacles to their work. This non-partisan involvement of NGOs in the electoral process has established a base for the broader expression of citizens’ participation in public affairs in the future.

Among the most well known voter mobilization campaigns were those organized by the radical youth group Otpor, one called “It’s Time,” and the other called “He’s Finished.” Its members faced constant harassment and arrests during the campaign.

A special contribution was made by G17+ (an expert NGO). It designed economic reforms programs and explained them to the population.

The largest NGO campaign, involving over 150 organizations, was IZLAZ 2000 (EXIT 2000), in which Civic Initiatives played an important role as one of three coordinators. One of the main characteristics of IZLAZ 2000 was its decentralization. There were several reasons for such a structure:

One, this prevented the regime from having a single target to attack. For example, when the election monitoring organization CESID had its premises closed and its computers confiscated, Plan B was put in action and an alternative vote count was successfully carried out at several NGOs in Belgrade.

Second, since NGOs had no access to national media, they had to use local media, especially electronic media in towns controlled by the opposition. Local NGOs could organize media responses and access more efficiently.
And, finally, developed local networks already existed, permitting coordination on a regional level and faster responses to actions of the regime, especially acts of repression. It also helped produce promotional materials adapted to local needs.

IZLAZ 2000 also adopted a strategy of organizing ongoing activities in every city as opposed to what we called the “one big event” approach. The permanent campaign kept the atmosphere “heated up” and also showed people the strength and efficiency of the civic sector. IZLAZ 2000 provided nationally produced materials and also assisted in the coordination of activities.

In Belgrade, we established a calendar of events (to avoid overlapping) and distributed information and materials for NGOs and media. The Information and Support Center was established housed at both the Center for Democracy Foundation and Civic Initiatives. The Information Center collected and distributed information on different campaigns and gave suport to local NGOs in all phases of their projects. The Promo or support center  provided basic support, technical asssistance, and designed several campaigns based on the request and needs of local NGOs. Altogether, the 150 NGOs participating in the IZLAZ 2000 campaign produced several million flyers, informational materials, newspaper inserts, posters, buttons, stickers, other promotional materials, as well as local radio, television, and newspaper advertisements. Tens of thousands of activists participated in the campaign daily, setting up informational tables, going door-to-door, distributing materials, and coordinating different activities.

All this was possible partly because donors developed a new more efficient approach by forming a Donors Forum of  in country and foreign organisations. Information was shared and overlapping was avoided. Joint financing made bigger projects possible. More than 120 local and national projects were approaved and implemented jointly by memebers of IZLAZ.

To many unaware of the third sector, the breadth and scale of the civic campaign was a complete surprise. But all of this networking and solidarity would not have been possible without the long-term grassroots engagement of a number of NGOs. For Civic Initiatives, which began full activities in 1997, our mission from the beginning was to work outside of the capital. After three years of work, we established an informal network of more than 300 NGOs, while 1,000 NGO activists had been educated in NGO management by TIM TRI (CI’s trainers group).

The campaign was not just aided by internal networking, however. What occurred was also the result of international solidarity. For us, the Centers for Pluralism (CfP) network was an indispensable source of support. Many CfPs contributed to our work in different ways by sharing their experiences and demonstrating their active solidarity, while a number of individuals became familiar with activists around the country: Ala Derkowska (Educational Society of Malopolska), Istvan Haller (Liga Pro Europa), Jakub Karpinski (Warsaw University), Luminita Petrescu (Foundation for Pluralism), Vincuk Viacorka (Supolnosc), Zsolt Szilagy (UDMR-Romania), Daniel Bartosiewitz (OK ’98-Slovakia), among others. Organizations like Democracy After Communism Foundation and IDEE-Warsaw were a permanent source of solidarity.

From all of these contacts, we could build on what others already achieved. Learning about the Slovak and Croatian, as well as Romanian and Bulgarian, models of campaigns provided a psychological  boost by showing that change succeeded in these countries. But also, people here appreciated that individuals coming here were willing to risk serious problems with the police; they appreciated this as much as what they learned from our guests. I have to mention three persons that shared and believed in our vision of a different Serbia, and who played a special role in this whole process of change: Irena Lasota and Eric Chenoweth from the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe for their  patient and stubborn belief  in our mission and  capacity to overthrow the regime, dating from 1993, and Pavol Demes of the German Marshal Fund of the U.S. for his energetic and efficient way of making people DO and not only talk.

Let me add: the Centers for Pluralism Meetings also were an important source of our support. At these meetings, we came to truly know that you are not alone in what you do and we gained from them a permanent source of energy as well as concrete agreements for help in our activities. We know also that just belonging to the CfP Network provided a certain kind of protection from repression by the regime, which knew that if it acted against us, there would be reactions from all around Europe.

The real work is still ahead of us. We have only made the first step and created conditions for development of democratic institutions and of civil society. The active citizen that participates in decision making and understands his role and his rights is our ultimate goal. This means we will have to work and educate both the government people on all levels and the citizens themselves. Others will work in providing humanitarian and social aid to a population on the verge of absolute poverty. The biggest challenge for our society will be to face our responsibility for the ten years of wars in the region. The NGO community and the free media are already pressuring the new government to bring to trial those that we believe are guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Their approach to this issue will show their real dedication to deep democratic changes.

We now have experiences that can be useful to others in similar political situations and, appreciative of what we were given, we are ready to share our experiences within the CFP Network and help them achieve their own victories. This will be the best way to say “Thank you.”