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Serbia: Analysis From Washington--Limits Of International Influence

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 12 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- An appeal this week by the Yugoslav opposition for international assistance in its struggle with President Slobodan Milosevich highlights the limited leverage the international community now has to affect change inside particular countries.

Having exhausted all legal avenues to overturn Milosevic's annulment of the recent elections and having been warned by both Milosevic and the international community not to use force, the Yugoslav protesters on Tuesday turned to the international community for help.

Western governments responded quickly and publicly. NATO foreign ministers "deplored" the Serbian government's actions. U.S. President Bill Clinton urged Milosevic to reverse himself and come to an agreement with the opposition.

And American Secretary of State Warren Christopher bluntly stated that if Milosevic "seeks to rule Serbia as an unreformed dictatorship, it will only increase his isolation and the suffering of his people."

Christopher's warning in particular underscores the difficulties the international community has. On the one hand, such statements by the international community will have an impact only if Milosevic cares either about his isolation or the suffering of his people.

Past evidence suggests, however, that Milosevic, like many other rogue leaders, may not care all that much about either.

And, the implicit threat to reimpose sanctions on Yugoslavia is only credible if the entire international community is prepared to go along. In this case, Russia has already indicated that it currently opposes any reimposition of sanctions on Belgrade.

Consequently, the political struggle in Yugoslavia is likely to continue, but the opposition may not gain much from the world beyond moral support, important as that may prove to be in the longer term.

Even more important, statements and actions by various world leaders on Tuesday -- which was coincidentally International Human Rights Day -- highlight the difficulties the international community faces in promoting democracy and human rights in countries far removed from Yugoslavia.

First, the statements demonstrated that the international community retains its commitment of non-interference in the internal affairs of any state regardless of what it may do to its population. Thus, President Clinton noted that "neither we nor anyone else would seek to interfere in the internal events of Serbia."

And such assurances of non-interference unintentionally become the basis for action by dictators like Milosevic.

Second, they show that the international community remains very divided on what is the best way to promote its values. While it is prepared to impose sanctions on smaller powers, many leading countries have convinced themselves that dialogue and expanded trade will have the effect of promoting social and political change in larger ones.

For example, on the same day it appeared to threaten new sanctions on Belgrade, the U.S. government hosted the Chinese defense minister, the man who had carried out the crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. A U.S. government spokesman suggested that such expanded contacts with Beijing would promote change there.

And third, the statements call attention to the fact that the international community has relatively few carrots to offer someone like Milosevic or even to other leaders in its quest to promote democracy and freedom.

For one thing, many countries, however desirous they may be of promoting democratic change, may not be willing to provide much real assistance to those who agree to pursue policies that the international community wants.

Leaders like Milosevic may even gain politically at home from international ostracism. To the extent that they can present themselves as the last defenders of their peoples against the world, they often can tap into the nationalism and patriotism of their populations even as they oppress them.

In addition, the international community is likely to find that those countries that do behave well on the basis of promises or expectations may behave differently if these prove illusory.

On Tuesday, for example, President Clinton correctly noted that "the prospect of NATO membership and integration into the West has been a very strong incentive for Europe's new democracies to expand their political freedoms and to promote universal human rights."

But the president's words do not address the broader but very real set of problems likely to arise if many of these countries conclude that their expectations of inclusion have been dashed. In that event, at least some of them might decide to behave in other ways.

Obviously, international moral pressure on behalf of democracy and human rights is important, but neither the countries applying it not the populations who are its intended beneficiaries should expect more from such pressure than it can in fact deliver.
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