Otpor steered clear of the traditional opposition tactics of marches and rallies -- partly out of necessity, because the group didn't have enough people to pull them off. Instead of political parties' gravity and bombast, Otpor adopted the sensibility of a TV show its leaders had grown up watching: Monty Python's Flying Circus. Its daily work consisted of street theater and pranks that made the government look silly and won coverage from opposition media. Wit was perhaps not always achieved, but it was always the aim.
The most famous stunt involved an oil barrel painted with Milosevic's picture. Otpor rolled it down a busy street, asking people to insert a coin in a slot for the privilege of whacking Milosevic with a bat. This was Otpor's favorite kind of prank, a dilemma action: It left the regime damned either way. If the government had let the barrel roll, it would have looked weak. But when the police stepped in, the optics were no better: The Otpor members fled, and the opposition TV the next day showed pictures of the police "arresting" a barrel and loading it into the police van. The country sniggered at these pranks -- and signed up for Otpor.
Rather than trying to avoid arrests, Otpor decided to provoke them and use them to the movement's advantage. After a few months it became evident that while police would rough up Otpor members, torture was rare and few of them would even be kept overnight. When any Otpor member was arrested, the organization sent a noisy crowd to hang out on the street outside the police station. Detainees would emerge from the police station to find a pack of opposition journalists and a cheering crowd of friends. Young men competed to rack up the most arrests. If wearing Otpor's signature fist-emblazoned black T-shirt made you an insider in the revolution, getting arrested made you a rock star. People who once thought of themselves as victims learned to think of themselves as heroes.
Two years after its founding, Otpor's 11 members had become more than 70,000. "The signal thing they did that should never be lost is that they made it OK for Serbs to say publicly that the regime was not invincible, that many Serbs shared a sense that change could come," said James O'Brien, the Clinton administration's special envoy to the Balkans. By the time Milosevic ran for reelection as president of Yugoslavia in September 2000, Otpor's prolonged protest campaign -- and Milosevic's attempts to suppress it -- had eroded the president's popularity and emboldened and helped to unify the opposition. When Milosevic refused to concede defeat to opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica, Otpor's example of disciplined nonviolence, along with its masses of activists, were crucial in convincing Serbia's security forces to defy Milosevic's orders to shoot at the protesters. On Oct. 7, the embattled president resigned.
The unthinkable had happened. For the young Serbs, the next step was figuring out how to export it.
Within a few months of Milosevic's ouster, Otpor's leaders began to get calls from democracy activists in other countries eager to copy the movement's success. Slobodan Djinovic, one of Otpor's original organizers, began traveling to Belarus, meeting clandestinely with a student movement there. It was soon infiltrated, however, and eventually collapsed.
Djinovic had more success in Georgia, where a group of young people had founded a movement called Kmara! ("Enough!"). In 2002, Djinovic and other Otpor leaders began visiting, and hosting Kmara students in Serbia. After Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet functionary who had served as Georgia's president since 1995, stole the country's November 2003 elections, a movement led by Kmara forced him out in what became known as the Rose Revolution. It was followed by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where former Otpor activists spent months advising the Pora ("It's Time") youth movement.
On a trip to South Africa to train Zimbabweans in 2003, Djinovic and Popovic decided to establish CANVAS. At the time, Popovic was a member of parliament, but he stepped down in 2004, preferring a career as an organizer and a revolutionary. Djinovic had founded Serbia's first wireless Internet service provider in 2000 and was well on his way to becoming a mogul. Today he is head of Serbia's largest private internet and phone company and funds about half of CANVAS's operating expenses and the costs for half the training workshops out of his own pocket. (CANVAS has four and a half staff employees. The trainers are veterans of successful democracy movements in five countries and are paid as contractors. CANVAS participates in some workshops financed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations Development Program, an international NGO called Humanity in Action, and Freedom House, an American group which gets its money from the U.S. government. But CANVAS prefers to give Washington a wide berth, in part due to Otpor's experience. Like the entire opposition to Milosevic, Otpor took money from the U.S. government, and lied about it. When the real story came out after Milosevic fell, many Otpor members quit, feeling betrayed.)
Most of CANVAS's work is with democracy activists from the middlingly repressive countries that make up the majority of the world's dictatorships. All its successes have been; the Serbs have helped overthrow the low-hanging fruit of autocracy. Whatever one might say about Shevardnadze's Georgia, it wasn't North Korea. So last year I decided to watch Popovic and Djinovic work with activists from a country that would put their ideas to the severest test yet: Burma.