Europe’s new activism is captured in a gripping study, Andrew Mueller says
IN JUNE 2005, SOME YOUNG folk gathered for a weekend in Tirana, Albania. To the staff of the hotel hosting them, they probably appeared unremarkable: an ebullient bunch in standard urban camouflage of jeans and T-shirts, occasionally distinguished by an eyebrow piercing or artfully dishevelled haircut.
In fact, they were the most extraordinary gathering of revolutionaries in recent history. These few dozen kids, from Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, sported badges bearing the emblems of organisations with names such as Otpor, Kmara, Pora and Pulse of Freedom.
They had helped to overthrow four governments – in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Lebanon – and had come together to discuss which might be next. A key plank of their plans was an abhorrence of violence. In an age dominated by the wretched failure of grand designs to spread liberal democracy at gunpoint, the story of how regime change was effected by the wit, ingenuity and bravery of these determined people is as timely as it is heartening.
I didn’t see Matthew Collin, who tells the story of the movement in his new book The Time of the Rebels, at the Tirana Activism Festival – although my recollections of the weekend are not to be entirely trusted. I did, however, meet several of those he interviewed and he succeeds in capturing their irreverent spirit.
The character who looms largest in the book is the one who did most to animate the Tirana weekend – the thirtysomething patriarch Ivan Marovic, unimprovably conjured by Collin as “a baby-faced schemer who specialised in wisecracking satire and sardonic soundbites”. He was a prime mover behind Otpor (“Resistance”), the Serbian protest movement whose dogged ridicule of the gangsterocracy of Slobodan Milosevic helped to create the mood for its demise.
Otpor was inspired by the Situationists of 1968 Paris, Martin Luther King, the writings of the nonviolent resistance guru Gene Sharp and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. It amplified the absurdity of Milosevic’s regime to the point where it became impossible for anybody to take him seriously. To a soundtrack provided by the renegade Belgrade radio station B92, its activists staged street theatre, invited passers-by to take a baseball bat to a barrel emblazoned with Milosevic’s face, sold irreverent postcards and covered Serbia’s cityscapes with posters and graffiti.
Otpor’s slogan “Gotov Je!” (“He’s finished!”) was common currency months before the October 2000 revolution – by the time that Milosevic finally slunk from office, it had the feel of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Otpor’s buccaneering style inspired youth in other Eastern European countries whose “liberation” after the collapse of the Soviet Union had been more cosmetic than actual. In Georgia, Kmara (“Enough!”) borrowed Otpor’s clenched-fist logo and their tactics, helping to prompt the 2003 “Rose Revolution” that terminated the rule of the elderly Soviet relic Eduard Shevardnadze.
A year later, in Ukraine, the “Orange Revolution” brought about the annulment of a rigged election. The flame reignited in Lebanon in 2005, and has flickered, if with less sensational consequences, in Belarus, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.
Collin’s book follows the phenomenon from Serbia across a broad swath of “second-world” countries – places where the middle-aged who govern them still operate with mentalities sculpted by tyranny and antiquated dogma, and where the young yearn to embrace the freedom that they have been led towards by Western popular culture.
Collin’s interviews reveal a bright, funny bunch whose focus is unswervingly practical – they take the desirability of democracy, free enterprise and secularism as given. For these reasons, they have been happy – and largely transparent – about accepting funding from NGOs and Western governments, including the US and Great Britain.
Inevitably, this has caused some – mostly those on the lemon-sucking Left who were never fully persuaded that Eastern European socialism was a bad thing – to decide that these movements are a huge US conspiracy.
“Postmodern coup d’état” was one verdict on Kiev. But while it is unarguable that these movements have been less successful where their aims have not coincided so neatly with Washington’s, it is difficult to see why American support should attract derision – there seems a clear moral difference between giving peaceful activists money for mischievous posters, and shipping guns to the Contras.
Besides, as any bulletin from Iraq will confirm, US money and wishful thinking cannot conjure democratic revolutions out of nothing. As the Ukrainian activist Mykhailo Svystovych puts it: “We are grateful we got that support during the revolution, but if it hadn’t happened, we still would have won.”