With winter coming on, US officials are counting on cold and isolation to accomplish something that bombs couldn't: The ouster of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
Western economic sanctions against Serbia are more targeted than the restrictions long in place against such rogue regimes as Iraq and Libya. Fuel aid will flow to cities controlled by Mr. Milosevic's opponents. A ban on travel aimed at Milosevic supporters is meant to make the elite feel quarantined in a nation increasingly defined by the word "drab."
But whether the foreign-policy tool of squeezing the people to make the despot squeal will work any better in Serbia than it has in Cuba remains an open question. Compelling in theory, a sanctions effort often has unintended consequences, ranging from increased nationalism to the delegitimization of political opposition.
"As a regime-changing mechanism, it is not effective. It is a device of punishment," says Ilana Kass, a professor of military strategy at the US National War College in Washington.
The problems and promise of sanctions against Serbia were on full display this week in the aftermath of a meeting by European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg. EU ministers approved $5 million in fuel-oil aid for two Serbian cities: Nis and Pirot. Both had petroleum refineries destroyed during NATO's 78-day bombing campaign last spring. Both are controlled by politicians opposed to Milosevic.
The US grudgingly went along with the move, but the administration remains concerned that the fuel could be mysteriously diverted and end up warming, say, the Serbian police.
"We support the principle of giving aid to the opposition.... We remain concerned about doing anything that would weaken the overall sanctions regime," said State Department spokesman James Rubin.
The US blocked a move by the EU to restore airline service to Belgrade. Administration officials consider the isolation of the nation's top officials and business people to be perhaps the most promising part of the West's sanctions package.
Unintended consequences of the Luxembourg meeting quickly cropped up in the Balkans. Opposition politicians did not greet the trickle of fuel aid with open arms - far from it. They boycotted the meeting over concerns that they would be associated with the call for Milosevic to be extradited to the West for trial as a war criminal.
In general, Serbia's fractured opposition fears being portrayed as President Clinton's lackeys. On Monday, Milosevic blasted his opponents as "cowards" and Western stooges.
Whether this criticism sticks will depend on whom shivering Serbs blame for their misery in December. Past sanctions experience shows that such public opinion can be unpredictable.
"Grandmothers in Belgrade and freezing temperatures ... it's not going to play well," warns Ruth Wedgwood, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Used as a blunt hammer, sanctions seldom are effective, experts say. They point to the example of Iraq, where a broad economic blockade appears to have only impoverished the nation while leaving Saddam Hussein in power.
"You have to take the human rights of the people under the sanctions into account," says Hurst Hannum, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.
In sanctions, as in war, proportionality may need to be kept in mind - whether the intended end is worth the cost of the means. The travel ban, which is a direct rapier thrust at people who know Milosevic, wins Professor Hannum's approval.
"What remains to be seen is whether the impact will be great enough to effect the sought-after change," he says.
South Africa is one nation where sanctions may have hastened the desired destruction of a political leadership, experts say. While international strictures against dealing with South Africa were broad, they also had the support of anti-apartheid leaders within the country. Most important, there was a true international consensus against apartheid, and the sanctions largely held.
If this week's Luxembourg meeting is any guide, the effort to oust Milosevic may have trouble on this point. A split could open between a hard-line US and European nations that remain convinced that an opening by the West would do more to undermine the Serb leader than lack of heat ever could.
"You have to broaden the base, so it's not just one country doing [sanctions]," says Chester Crocker, a former US Assistant Secretary of State and a professor at Georgetown University.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society