Using humor to put an oppressive government in a lose-lose situation

The nonviolent civil-resistance movement initiated by Otpor! In Serbia used satire and other unconventional ways of successfully spreading its message of resistance against the tyrannical regime of Slobodan Milosevic.

The Milosevic regime ruled over Serbia and Yugoslavia for about 13 years. To maintain control, the Milosevic regime was infamous for arbitrary arrests, beatings, imprisonment and even murder of avid opponents.

Otpor!, Serbian for “Resistance”, was founded in 1998 by a group of 15 students at Belgrade University. They initially got together to protest against new laws that would hinder the freedom of the media as well as the autonomy of the universities. However, the group continued to grow by actively mobilizing citizens against the oppressive regime.

In 2000, before the fall of Slobodan Milosevic, a government initiative to support agriculture involved placing boxes in shops and public places asking people to donate one dinar (Serbian currency) for sowing and planting crops. In response, Otpor! arranged its own collection called “Dinar za Smenu” (Dinar for a Change). This initiative was implemented several times and in different places in Serbia. It consisted of a big barrel with a photo of Milosevic. People could donate one dinar, and would then get a stick they could use to hit the barrel. At one point, a sign suggested that if people did not have any money because of Milosevic’s politics, they should hit the barrel twice.

When the police removed the barrel, Otpor! stated in a press release that the police had arrested the barrel. They claimed that the initiative was a huge success as they had collected enough money for Milosevic’s retirement, and that the police would pass the money on to him.

In this way, Otpor! left both Milosevic and his supporters with no space for reaction. If the police did not take away the barrel, they would be seen as weak and ineffectual. And even when they did remove it, Otpor! continued to make jokes. No matter what the regime did, it lost.

Through their use of satire, Otpor! was able to remove fear from those who opposed Milosevic’s government. Moreover, they were effective in uniting the oppositional forces and effectively applying nonviolent means of resistance. The use of satire enabled Otpor! to expose and mock the government in its activities. This was a piece of a larger movement that eventually empowered the citizenship to overturn Milosevic, despite mass beatings and arrests.

Due to the non-violent nature of this method, an oppressive government is likely to respond to protestors in a brutal manner. It is important to understand the dangers of retribution. Moreover, because Otpor! began as a small-scale movement, it became more effective over time, creatively used many tactics as its support base broadened.

The use of humor through satirical methods is a powerful tactic that can be transferred to many other contexts. To learn more about the other tactics used by this movement, refer to the Otpor! tactic case study.

“Humor is the first step to break taboos and fears.  Making people laugh about dangerous stuff like dictatorship, repression, censorship is a first weapon against those fears…without beating fear you can not make any change.  So humor is very effective.”   – Sami Gharbia of Global Voices online

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.