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This Is An Uprising – Otpor’s Hybrid Model For Overthrowing A Dictator

July 12, 2018

(One in a series of posts on Mark & Paul Engler’s 2016 book, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping The Twenty-First Century.)

Rising from the ashes of the 1996-97 failed student protests, Otpor (Serbian for “resistance”) arose in 1998 and led a successful two-year nonviolent campaign that removed Slobodan Milosevic from power and installed a democratic government in Serbia.

In This Is An Uprising, the Englers assert that “the model Otpor developed has been studied by movements in dozens of other countries and adapted to local circumstances in widely varied parts of the world. What it represented was perhaps the most compelling example to date of a hybrid between structure and mass protest—a powerful example of what can be called momentum-driven organizing.” (p. 62)

Here are some key points the Englers make about Otpor and its work:

  1. “Otpor’s most distinctive innovations in fact involve the new type of organization they created: one that was disruptive yet highly strategic, decentralized yet carefully structured.” (pp. 63-64)
  2. “Otpor developed a type of momentum-driven organizing that is fundamentally based on deploying disruptive power but that takes a deliberate and disciplined approach to mass mobilization. Rather than waiting around for the next ‘Big Bang’ that could send people into the streets, they began building a network with the ability to engineer its own spikes of unrest.” (p. 65)
  3. “Early on, the organizers decided that Otpor should maintain a firm commitment to using nonviolent tactics. Their reasoning was simple: Milosevic would slaughter them if they took up arms.” (p. 65)
  4. “Otpor…decided that the movement would have no figureheads that would become media celebrities…. The group constantly rotated its official spokespeople, and it was careful to avoid developing a cult of personality around any individual.” (pp. 68-69)
  5. Otpor set broad goals that allowed for wide ideological diversity within the movement. As Otpor leader Ivan Marovic put it, “We knew that defeating Milosevic and securing free and fair elections was something we could all agree on, so we agreed to put our other differences aside until Milosevic was gone.” (p. 70)
  6. Otpor’s networks “were designed to give the greatest amount of autonomy possible to the greatest number of participants. But contrary to the assumption that decentralization means that anything goes, the opposite is arguably true: movements without centralized hierarchies often require even stronger guidelines and more explicit operating procedures if they are to be effective.” (p. 71)

Two key practices Otpor used to create and sustain its decentralized, yet cohesive movement were 1) frontloading, and 2) mass training.

“Frontloading” is the art and practice of creating well-defined norms and behaviors for a movement or organization. In Otpor’s case, “the founders had intentionally created a sort of DNA that was replicated as Otpor chapters spread. They established this DNA in many ways: they had a clear strategy, a brand, and a vision of what they wanted to accomplish. They had a distinct set of tactics that people could pick up and use, as well as well-defined boundaries within which local teams expressed their independence.” (p. 72)

Mass training is just what it sounds like: a commitment to intensive leadership training on a massive scale. In Otpor’s case, “a typical training stretched over the course of a week, in Monday-through-Friday evening sessions. Discussions started in an office or classroom often continued at a bar later the same night. At the end of the week of training, new recruits were asked to plan and execute an action themselves, putting the skills they had just learned to immediate use. Only then were they officially considered members of the movement.

The number of people in a given session might be small—seven or eight participants was typical—but, when repeated hundreds of times, the trainings integrated extraordinary numbers.” (p. 76)

There’s an old organizing axiom: “Meet with a plan, not for a plan.” In other words, don’t waste people’s time by calling them to a meeting to try to figure out what they’re doing next. Instead, do the work of leadership that involves putting together a proposal for action that the group can then debate, amend, and adopt.

Otpor’s goal was to take down Milosevic, and to have free and fair elections. And they had a plan. Their plan was to start with small acts of defiance, then call for elections, then unite the opposition behind one candidate, then get out the vote for that candidate, monitor the election results, and finally (because they knew the regime would not give up power without a fight), be prepared to call for mass noncompliance (up to and including a general strike) to enforce the election’s outcome.

In the end Otpor accomplished its goal. Milosevic lost the election, and the massive nonviolent resistance to the regime’s attempts to hold onto power resulted in a democratic government taking office.

Posts in this series:

From → Books, History, Politics

21 Comments
  1. vincelamb permalink

    I like this series of posts and am looking forward to seeing this installment and the next cross-posted at Booman Tribune.

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