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Paths to Peace

How Serbian students brought dictator down without a shot fired


As President Bush moves to widen the war against terrorism, he has warned the governments of Iraq, Iran and North Korea not to make weapons of mass destruction available to terrorists -- or else, he implies, American military action against them is likely. It is true that countries ruled by dictators have incubated or aided terrorists. But it is not true that the only way to “take out” such regimes is through U.S. military action.

A revealing new documentary television special, “Bringing Down A Dictator,” shows how a nonviolent, student-led movement in Serbia shattered the power base of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, and how democratic organizing ejected him from office. All this happened less than two years ago, but most Americans are not even aware of the story.

Dictators require two conditions to stay in power: the fear and acquiescence of the people they rule, and the willingness of police or security forces to follow orders and crack down on opposition. But the strategic use of nonviolent resistance can detach any dictator, however, ruthless, from both of those components of his power.

In Serbia, young people who were angry about the stagnant, hopeless society produced by Milosevic started Otpor (resistance, in Serbian). They ridiculed the president with sidewalk birthday parties, showing a cake representing Yugoslavia being carved up during Milosevic’s reign. They plastered flat surfaces all over the country with stickers that stated, “He’s finished.” Every Serb knew whom that meant -- and the belief that Milosevic could not be opposed was dissolved.

Otpor mobilized thousands of civilians in scores of Serbian cities. “Citizens finally realized that they are not objects, but subjects of politics,” said activist Stanko Lazendic. They discovered within themselves the ability and willingness to stop being submissive. And when the leaders of the movement were arrested, friends and family members went down to the police stations and stood silently outside and showed the men in uniform that the opposition had deep roots, that it wasn’t just disaffected students but whole communities that stood against the dictator.

Eroding loyalty to Milosevic

Yet Milosevic’s foes did not assail the police or treat them as the enemy. “We couldn’t use force on someone who had three times more weapons than we did,” said Lazendic. “We knew what had happened in China, in Tiananmen.” Instead Milosevic’s foes “got under” the officers’ “skins and under their uniforms and tried to reach them somewhere deep to say, ‘Come on guys, we are together. This is our country,’ ” said Srdja Popovic, an Otpor leader.

The result: The loyalty of the police and security services to the dictator was eroded from within. One police general told Velimir Ilic, an oppositionist mayor: “Please defeat Milosevic already, even I feel sick of him.” In the final days, when Milosevic tried to hold onto power after failing to sabotage an election, and hundreds of thousands of Serbs marched on the capital, Belgrade, he ordered the police to blockade the roads. But the police “knew that any kind of using force against these people would be self-destruction, and they would be losers together with Milosevic,” said Teofli Panic, a journalist. So they did not shoot. They disobeyed orders. They stood aside.

Within days Milosevic had fallen; within a few months, he was standing in an international courtroom in The Hague, hearing his indictment for war crimes. A man who had rained terror on the heads of Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars and his fellow Serbs -- whom some had called the “Butcher of the Balkans” -- had been brought to the bar of world justice without a shot being fired.

Bombing prolonged his survival

Some American policymakers still believe that the months of NATO bombing of Serbia one year before, when Milosevic perpetrated “ethnic cleansing in Kosovo,” weakened his regime, paving the way for his downfall. But few Serbs buy that. “It helped him to survive for more than a year,” said Srdja Popovic. The civilian opposition felt it could not operate against the government while it was under bombardment from abroad. “It was like Iraq,” said Zoran Djindjic, now prime minister of Serbia. NATO insisted that it was “aid for the Serbian democratic forces to bomb Serbia and to bomb bridges and to bomb buses and to bomb factories,” Djindjic recalled. “It was stupid.”

The intelligence of the Serbian people’s strategy for ridding their country of Milosevic relied on a different understanding of power. A dictator can survive external attack, because his military and his people rally around the only available symbol of national survival. But no dictator can survive when he no longer has the consent or submission of his people. And massive civilian opposition can be roused with the shrewd use of strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of nonviolent resistance -- all of which can be quietly assisted, even funded from abroad, as happened in Serbia.

Dictators, including those who help or harbor terrorists, can be brought down -- by the hands of their own people.

Peter Ackerman is a scholar and teacher in the area of strategic nonviolence. He is co-author, with Christopher Kruegler, of Strategic Nonviolent Conflict: The Dynamics of People Power in the Twentieth Century.

Peace history

  • 1980: Solidarity founded in Poland; repressed under martial law in 1981; widely declared dead even by Western correspondents. In 1989 it wins every available seat in Parliament and governs the nation; its victory comes without a single violent act despite the killing of 100 of its members.
  • 1982: 750,000 people gather in New York City for the largest disarmament demonstration in U.S. history.


The Albert Einstein Institution
427 Newbury Street
Boston MA 02115
(617) 247-4882

“Bringing Down a Dictator” may be ordered from Films for the Humanities and Sciences
P.O. Box 2053
Princeton NJ 08543-2053
(800) 257-5126

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002