Tinkering rightly with Serb sanctions

In the waning days of the Bush administration in 1992, it surely would have been difficult for policymakers to imagine that the sanctions imposed on the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at that time would still be in place nearly eight years later.

But that is precisely what has happened; a defiant and unreconstructed Slobodan Milosevic remains atop the political pyramid in Belgrade, having weathered an unprecedented NATO military bombardment and eight years of economic sanctions.

But now the controversial policy of isolation that has been in place against Serbia is coming under renewed scrutiny.

Originally imposed as an alternative to the use of military force, the sanctions in many respects have had an opposite effect on the situation in Serbia - among other things, enabling a shadowy pro-Milosevic elite to emerge, and contributing to the overall criminalization of Serbian society.

These associates of Milosevic became rich by smuggling and profiteering. Western-friendly neighboring countries - including Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary - have suffered enormously from the sanctions regime, having to deal with the black-market activity and other criminality that has been spawned by Serbia's isolation.

The comprehensive package of sanctions - including oil, arms, and investment embargoes - were designed to form an economic noose to suffocate all of Serbia's economic activity.

But in large measure the reality is that legitimate commerce has been strangled, while official corruption and black-market activity have flourished.

The Serbian opposition has agitated for an easing of sanctions, arguing that those hurt most by them are on the bottom of society's pyramid - average Serbs.

This request was granted, in part, earlier this month when the European Union agreed to suspend for six months the ban on commercial airline flights to and from Serbia.

At the same time, the EU also expanded a ban on the issue of visas to Mr. Milosevic, his family, close associates, and a list of Yugoslav officials.

The measure was designed to deny Serbia's wealthy class of Milosevic supporters the opportunity to maintain business contacts in the West and enjoy their homes in Western European capitals such as London, Paris, and Rome.

This travel ban on "elites" was first put in place during the Nato campaign last year, when some 300 people connected to the regime were declared personae non gratae through-out Western Europe and the United States. This list has now been tripled.

It should also be remembered that policymakers in the United States and Europe have often sent mixed messages regarding the Serb leader.

On the one hand, Western leaders have claimed that he is the root of the problem.

On the other hand, these same Western countries have at crucial moments over the past years embraced Milosevic to negotiate peace agreements in Bosnia and Croatia - thus conferring credibility on the very person they claim is most responsible for destabilizing the Balkans.

The indictment of Milosevic for war crimes in Kosovo by the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, and the singling out of his close associates with the visa ban is an important, but very belated, recognition of the special responsibility of leadership.

Thus, there is finally an acknowledgment that impoverishing average Serbs through comprehensive sanctions is not a winning policy.

It has not achieved desired results after eight years and serves only to dig Serbia into a deeper hole before the inevitable reconstruction begins.

Paradoxically, the circle of Milosevic associates who most benefited over the years of broad sanctions are the very people now finally being more closely targeted by the West, which has managed neither to avoid the use of force, nor to bring Milosevic to heel.

*Christopher Walker is a New York-based analyst specializing in Eastern European affairs. He worked for three years in Eastern Europe for a nonprofit organization that supports independent journalism.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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