Stronger Sanctions Against Serbia Will Only Spread the Disaster

This week's Security Council vote to strengthen sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro represents the latest diplomatic step toward ensuring that the Yugoslav disaster grows worse and spreads further.

If the sanctions are intended to weaken the regime of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, they are counterproductive. It should have been obvious to those who fought the Cold War that international isolation is the best friend of tyrants. The sanctions amount to a new Iron Curtain, cutting off support for the progressive forces in Serbia.


In an economic situation of increasing scarcity, the government's power to control and allocate resources also increases, and the means to fight the government diminish. We can see this effect in the Serbian press: The courageous and energetic free press in Belgrade is being choked by sanctions (unable to get the paper to print on), while the regime's propaganda machine is unaffected.

The other economic hardships caused by the sanctions also weaken the opposition more than they do Mr. Milosevic. While his policies caused the collapse of Serbia's economy, the sanctions have provided Mr. Milosevic with the perfect excuse for economic failure: The collusion of the great powers. This self-serving explanation is given credence by the patent unfairness of the sanctions, in that they were not imposed also on Croatia.


The division of Bosnia and Herzegovina was agreed to by the Croats as well as the Serbs, and the Croats have seized the parts of the republic that they wanted. Forty thousand Croatian Army troops are operating in Bosnia, and the Croats have consolidated their territorial conquests by ethnic cleansings of Muslims and Serbs.

In this situation, the imposition of sanctions on Serbia alone seems to confirm the paranoia that Mr. Milosevic has worked so hard to cultivate among the Serbs.

If the sanctions are meant to stop the war in Bosnia, they are hopelessly beside the point. Tragically, the "Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina," the newest member of the United Nations, is a legal fiction; it does not and cannot exist. Once the world powers decided that Yugoslavia could not endure as a multiethnic state based on the coexistence of Serbs, Croats and others, it was impossible for multiethnic Bosnia to survive.

Indeed, the leaders of Bosnia's Croats and Serbs, elected as democratically as the Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic and with more of the vote between them than Mr. Izetbegovic received, agreed in March of this year to divide Bosnia between them. At this point Bosnia was dead, rejected by the elected representatives of a majority of its putative citizens.

Recognizing a "state" that did not exist inevitably meant war, either by foreign military conquest of Bosnia's unwilling subjects or, always more likely and as in fact happened, for the Serbs and Croats to accomplish by force the division that the world powers would not accept through negotiation.

Now, hundreds of thousands will die in Bosnia over the coming winter months. Their deaths were made inevitable by the recognition of the Bosnia that did not exist, and it is impossible now to save them. In this situation, the sanctions on Serbia are simply irrelevant.

The sanctions will, however, spread the war's suffering, starvation and disease to the population of Serbia, to people who have tried to avoid the war and many of whom have openly opposed it. Unemployment in Serbia, now at least 50 percent, may reach 80 percent. Inflation, currently running at 30,000 percent per year can only go up.

Disease is rising because Serbia can not afford to import medicines. Lack of medical supplies means that the blood supply in Serbia is no longer being tested for AIDS and that disposable syringes are being reused, creating a frightening parallel to one of the worst horrors of Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania. Soon we will see the first AIDS epidemic that has been caused by deliberate action of the Western powers, acting through the United Nations.


If the United States and European Community wish to stick to economic sanctions, they should become unconventional, and aim for two goals.

Strange as it may seem, the best way to weaken Mr. Milosevic would be to impose sanctions also on Croatia. The Croatian land grab in Bosnia is as reprehensible as the Serbian one, and recognizing this would undercut Mr. Milosevic's claims to his own people that the world is biased against them.

On the other hand, the way to strengthen the Serbian opposition would be to grant Yugoslavian Prime Minister Milan Panic's request for a relaxation of the sanctions for humanitarian purposes. Such a step would tell the Serbs that the world is against Mr. Milosevic, not against them, and that it is willing to help a leader who, like Mr. Panic, wants to cooperate to end Yugoslavia's tragedy.

If the sanctions are simply increased, however, their only "success" can be that the United States and the European Community will kill Serbs in addition to the Muslims: the tragically predicable of stupidly conventional diplomacy.

Robert M. Hayden, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, is a specialist on Yugoslavia.