CDDRL Visiting Scholar Olena Nikolayenko Analyzes Post-Soviet Youth Movements

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Otpor's symbol - the clenched fist - on a wall in Belgrade, January 2008.
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Olena Nikolayenko

Over the past decade, thousands of young people in the post-communist region applied nonviolent methods of resistance to protest against large-scale electoral fraud. In 2000, the social movement Otpor (Resistance) played a vital role in removing Slobodan Milosevic from power. Inspired by Otpor, a number of youth movements emerged in Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, and Ukraine. In my post-doctoral project at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, I examine why some youth movements were more successful than others in mobilizing the population against the repressive political regime. My research suggests that political learning of autocratic incumbents has contributed to the diminishing power of similar youth movements.

In the wake of the 1998 draconic laws on universities and the mass media, a group of students from the University of Belgrade formed the youth movement Otpor and chose the clenched fist as its symbol. In the course of two-year nonviolent struggle against Milosevic, Otpor spread across Serbia and attracted more than 70,000 supporters. The youth movement launched a campaign with the provocative title “He Is Finished” and shifted the blame for all the country’s problems on the incumbent president. In addition, Otpor collaborated with other civil society actors to stage a get-out-to-vote campaign “It’s Time!” aimed at bringing first-time voters to the polling stations. In the 2000 election, almost 86 percent of 18-29 year old Serbs cast their ballot; most of them voted against Milosevic.

Given state pressures on the mainstream media, the Serbian movement delivered its messages by occupying the public space. Movement participants plastered Otpor stickers, spray-painted graffiti, staged street performances, and organized street concerts. “It is amazing how people notice branding in their everyday life, but underestimate it in nonviolent struggle,” a former Otpor activist noted. Without doubt, Otpor succeeded in creating and popularizing a model of nonviolent resistance.

Notwithstanding slight modifications of Otpor’s model, Belarus’ Zubr (Bison) in 2001, Georgia’s Kmara (Enough) in 2003, Ukraine’s Pora (It’s Time) in 2004, and an assortment of Azerbaijani youth groups in 2005 largely took a similar course of action. The youth movements were formed around the time of a national election and called for free and fair elections. Emulating Otpor, youth activists planned a negative campaign targeted at the incumbent president and a positive campaign aimed at boosting youth voter turnout. Likewise, youth movements employed a similar toolkit of protest strategies, including stickers, graffiti, street performances, and rock concerts.

At the same time, autocratic incumbents in the post-Soviet region began to scrutinize Otpor’s model of nonviolent resistance to prevent the repeat of the Serbia scenario. In light of electoral revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine, the governments in Azerbaijan and Belarus deployed coercive measures against youth movements before they could develop into powerful agents of political change. In addition, the incumbent presidents have invested considerable resources into the creation of state-sponsored youth organizations. In 2005 and 2008, the Azerbaijani youth movement Ireli (Forward) called upon young voters to support President Ilham Aliyev. Similarly, the Komsomol-like Belarusian Republican Union of Youth has become a tool for youth co-optation under President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Like in the Soviet times, membership in the state-sponsored youth organization is now a pre-requisite for university admission and career growth in Belarus.