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Serbia: Opposition Urges Alternatives To Sanctions

Prague, 11 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Last Saturday (May 9), the foreign ministers of the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Italy and Canada agreed in London to freeze Yugoslav and Serbian assets abroad and to ban new foreign investment in Serbia.

The ministers' goal is to press Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to withdraw his paramilitary special police forces from Kosova and launch a dialogue with representatives of the ethnic Albanian majority there about the province's future. Recent experience involving Belgrade and sanctions, however, suggests that the ministers' latest move may prove counterproductive.

The U.N. placed all of rump Yugoslavia under tough economic sanctions in May 1992 as a result of Belgrade's involvement in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. The sanctions remained in force until the Dayton agreement was signed at the end of 1995. According to Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. diplomat who was the architect of the Dayton peace, the effects of the sanctions were one of the main reasons that Milosevic finally chose to seek peace.

There are three reasons, however, to suggest that the sanctions may have made promoting the cause of peace difficult.

First, they were not selectively targeted at the men in power but were rather blanket measures that affected all Yugoslav citizens. The sanctions helped lower a standard of living -- especially for the poor and the elderly -- that was already bad enough thanks to Milosevic's neo-communist economic policies. The sanctions similarly hurt the struggling economies of neighboring Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania, the governments of which estimate their losses from the sanctions in the billions of dollars.

Second, the sanctions had only a slow effect on the Milosevic regime, which did not, in any event, decide to go to Dayton until after the Krajina and Bosnian Serb armies had been routed on the battlefield. In the meantime, the regime had over three and a half years to tell its citizens that the source of their growing poverty was the foreigners' sanctions. In doing so, Milosevic's media skillfully boosted his popularity by playing on a traditional Serbian belief that the Serbs are often the victims of foreign-led conspiracies.

Third, the sanctions gave rise to sanctions-busting on a massive scale both in rump Yugoslavia and in some neighboring countries. This phenomenon led to the growth of mafia-like structures, many members of which enjoyed excellent political connections, particularly in Belgrade. The growth of the mafias -- whose profits often came from the pockets of ordinary citizens -- also undermined efforts from any quarter aimed at promoting democratization and the rule of law.

In view of these experiences from 1992 to 1995, some Serbian opposition leaders and journalists, and also some prominent Kosovars, have suggested that the international community should try to find alternatives to blanket economic sanctions. Speaking last week (May 6) in Vienna, reformist Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic warned that such sanctions will hit ordinary people as well as the regime and will make it easy for Milosevic to clamp down on the reformers and blame foreigners for his country's growing poverty.

One alternative to economic sanctions might be to maintain and intensify the existing international political pressure on Milosevic by continuing to bar his government from membership in international organizations such as the OSCE. The fact that Belgrade frequently complains about the ban suggests that the measure is having some effect.

The ban need not mean, however, that all Yugoslav passport holders be barred from international meetings and events. Serbian opposition spokesmen stress that, on the contrary, the international community should clearly differentiate between the regime and other Serbs, who will play a key role in establishing an eventual post-Milosevic order in the Balkans. Opposition spokesmen therefore urge the international community to make special efforts to involve non-regime Yugoslav citizens in European and international forums.

Second, Kosovar leaders and the Albanian government have repeatedly urged NATO to find ways of increasing military pressure on Milosevic. They argue that Serbia ceased its aggression during the Croatian and Bosnian wars only when it came up against the clear willingness of NATO to use superior force. The leaders in Prishtina and Tirana add that a strong NATO presence along Serbia's frontiers with Kosova and perhaps with Macedonia would consequently be much more effective than economic sanctions in sending the message to Milosevic that the international community will not tolerate armed repression in Kosova.

Third, Serbian opposition spokesmen, such as Radio B-92's chief editor Veran Matic, have frequently urged the international community to develop a serious and comprehensive program to support democratization and a civil society in Serbia. Martic further asks foreign diplomats to be firm in their opposition to the regime and to avoid flattering Milosevic by treating him as a peacemaker or offering him positive incentives.

Matic also stresses that new economic sanctions could prove a boon to the mafias and undermine the efforts of many people since 1995 aimed at establishing democratization and the rule of law in Montenegro, Albania, and the Republika Srpska. Biljana Plavsic, the president of the Republika Srpska, said recently that the key to resolving the Kosova crisis is the democratization of Serbia.