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Why Western sanctions on Zimbabwe may not matter anymore

Yesterday, the European Union announced it would lift sanctions on Zimbabwe if the country held a referendum on a new constitution. How much do sanctions affect the country? 

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / July 24, 2012



Since 2003, the United States and the European Union have maintained “targeted sanctions” against individual members of the government of Zimbabwe, including President Robert Mugabe and many of his closest advisers and cabinet members.

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Now, the EU is talking about lifting some of those sanctions – including travel bans and arms embargoes – if Zimbabwe holds a referendum on a new constitution by the end of this year.

Behind the usual chatter about whether it is time to lift sanctions or not is a more fundamental question: How much impact do “targeted” sanctions really have?

In a country like Zimbabwe, where the state and the ruling party maintain tight controls on who can buy and sell land, and on who can profit from the exploration of natural resources, the answer is more straight-forward than it might seem. If most of the country’s assets are indeed owned by the leadership under sanction, then it would make sense the country would suffer. If targeted sanctions were imposed on Bill Gates, for monopolistic tendencies perhaps, it’s likely that the company he founded, Microsoft, and the town of Redmond, Wash., would feel the effects of those personal sanctions.

After the EU announced yesterday that it might lift sanctions, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai – a longtime rival of President Mugabe and now a member of a coalition government with Mugabe – was among the first to praise the move.

"Linking the suspension to the successful implementation of the constitution referendum is evidence that the EU is willing to respond to progress in reform of the democratic process in Zimbabwe," Mr. Tsvangira said yesterday.

In truth, by imposing sanctions for so long, the EU and the US may be losing their leverage. Today, Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner is South Africa, and China is its largest export destination, receiving 5.6 percent of all the goods and products that Zimbabwe produces.

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