If the scenes of young people blowing whistles, banging drums and handing out cough drops amid the throng of protesters in Kiev last week looked familiar, they should: student-led mass protests also followed disputed elections in Tbilisi last year and in Belgrade in 2000, and each time the opposition prevailed. At least one group has played a role in all three movements. Serbia's Otpor, or Resistance, the student organization that spearheaded the revolution that ousted Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, sent "trainers" to aid activists who helped unseat Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in 2003. And earlier this year, the group provided training to Ukraine's Pora, the biggest opposition youth group in Kiev.
In each case, Otpor coordinator Sinisa Sikman told TIME, Otpor taught local students organization and negotiation skills, street-protest tactics, and how to "monitor the elections so that they could fight fraud." News of Otpor's interest in the Ukraine vote and the fact that the group received funding from the U.S. government as well as dozens of other private and non-American donors drew alarmed speculation on Russian state TV that the group is an American tool agitating for regime change "on the doorstep of Russia."
Pora and Otpor deny the charge. Andriy Yusov, a key Pora coordinator in Kiev, says the group was founded just this year to monitor and ensure fair elections; it is not affiliated with the opposition party. In Kiev, the group has handled everything from maintaining public order to blockading government offices. Yusov stresses that Pora has never received U.S. funding and that while 18 members traveled to Serbia in the spring and met with Otpor leaders at a "seminar" in the city of Novi Sad, they paid for themselves. Yusov dismissed the idea that Otpor, or the Center for Non Violent Resistance as it now calls itself, pulled strings in Kiev or anywhere else.
In a dingy Belgrade office, Otpor coordinator Sikman, 32, agrees. "We are not exporting revolution," he says. "We just happen to have some experience in resisting autocrats. After all the years of fighting Milosevic, it's in our blood." Otpor won its reputation for bravely taunting Milosevic's authoritarian regime by parading a giant effigy of the Serbian strongman in a prison suit and charging people a dinar to punch it. Some 9,000 activists were jailed or detained. Since then, the group has hooked up with student protesters in Belarus, Georgia and Ghana, among other countries. Ukraine's "Pora was not created by Otpor," Sikman says. "Pora is a homegrown movement that existed before they came to us."