Measuring the impact of U.N. sanctions against Serbia

JAT Airways
JAT Airways had to suspend most of its flights because of UN economic sanctions against rump Yugoslavia (© Flickr/Aero Icarus)

In May 1992, the United Nations Security Council imposed strict economic sanctions against the two republics remaining in the Yugoslav Federation – Serbia and Montenegro – after almost a year of fruitless efforts to end the fighting in the former Yugoslavia. At the time, it was widely believed that an almost total boycott would quickly end the war and perhaps also lead to the overthrow of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević (1941-2006). The sanctions failed on both counts. The fighting is continuing and President Milošević is still firmly in power. So, are tough economic sanctions the best way for the United Nations to show its disapproval of governments like Mr. Milošević’s?

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: June 2, 1994


Newsline, analysis and background reports on current affairs. This edition is hosted by Ginger da Silva.

Hello, welcome to this special edition of Newsline. In May 1992, the United Nations Security Council imposed economic sanctions against the two republics remaining in the Yugoslav Federation: Serbia and Montenegro. The economic boycott was designed to punish the rump Yugoslavia for supporting the Serb forces in Bosnia Herzegovina. It’s one of the strictest and most comprehensive embargoes ever imposed. All trade and air links with Yugoslavia have been severed. Oil sales have been prohibited. The country’s foreign assets have been frozen, and sporting and cultural exchanges have also been cut. Only food aid and medicine have been exempted. The international community imposed the sanctions after almost a year of fruitless efforts to end the fighting in the former Yugoslavia. At the time, the international community believed that an almost total boycott would quickly end the war and perhaps also lead to the overthrow of Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. The sanctions failed on both counts. The fighting is continuing and President Milošević is still firmly in power. So, are tough economic sanctions the best way for the United Nations to show its disapproval of governments like Mr. Milošević’s? Eric Beauchemin recently visited Serbia and has been examining the issues.

Since the imposition of UN sanctions, rump Yugoslavia’s economy has been slowly but steadily collapsing. Inflation now exceeds a billion percent per year, and if it continues at the rate it did in August, Yugoslavia’s annual inflation rate will be an astronomical one trillion percent. Industrial output has fallen by 70%, and today 97% of the population lives below the poverty level. The Yugoslav economy had already been in decline, but Nenad Stefanović of the Belgrade-based weekly Vreme says the sanctions pushed all economic indicators over the edge and gave Serbian President Slobodan Milošević a convenient scapegoat.

Even before sanctions, our economy was going down. All major trends in our economy were pretty bad. Sanctions will only help him and his government to justify this terrible economic situation and to say that we are victims of a world complot, but that’s simply not true.

But because his regime controls all television outside the greater Belgrade area, President Milosevic has convinced most Serbs and Montenegrins that the West is entirely to blame for the country’s economic state. Sonia Licht of the humanitarian organisation, the Soros Foundation, believes the sanctions have not only isolated Yugoslavia, they’ve also isolated the people most likely to be against the Milosevic regime.

They are not only giving an alibi to Milošević but helping him to complete his politics of self-isolation. For the last few years, he was doing everything to isolate Serbia from the world. Now the world helps him a lot. This is why the sanctions were also implying sanctions on cultural exchanges, scientific work, email and so on. You remember often they would say that they will cut the telephone lines. Wonderful for Milošević! At least 20 times a week, I have communication with my friends from all over. Faxes are coming and going, and this is true for at least a thousand people in Serbia and Montenegro. If this would be cut, that’s wonderful for Mr. Milošević, and of course, that’s the end for us.

The economic situation in rump Yugoslavia has become so desperate that many people are simply choosing to leave the country. It’s an enormous and debilitating brain drain, according to Sonia Licht.

Hundreds of thousands of the most educated, the most open minded, the most professional people left. They are running away from this disastrous economic situation, from the war, but also from a situation in which there is no perspective. This is going to destroy the potential for the development of this country.

Some estimates put the number of Yugoslavs who’ve emigrated over the past two years at over 300,000. And there are still long lines in front of many embassies in Belgrade. The embargo, says Dr. Pedrag Simić of the Institute for Political Studies, has also severely affected the country’s Western-oriented industry.

One of the natural allies of the West are the Western-oriented companies. But they have been first victims, first targets of the sanctions, not these remote typical Communist large overstaffed industrial plants that won’t survive market competition of the West.

Hopelessness is a widespread feeling in today’s Yugoslavia. And it’s a feeling increasingly shared by international humanitarian organisations. Their appeals for donations are going largely unanswered. Since the very beginning, Serbia was branded as the bad guy in the war, undeserving of relief aid, no matter how great the need, says Donatella Linari of the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF.

The economic situation is so bad and the inflation is such that it makes every effort more difficult, and there is no organisation that can ever make it up. Whatever assistance we might bring is a drop in the ocean anyway. You cannot replace the capacity of industries to produce drugs.

While the UN embargo specifically exempts medicines and drugs, Dr. Banecić Milos (sp?), the director of the Institute for Mother and Child in Belgrade and a former Yugoslav health minister, says Yugoslavia’s pharmaceutical industry has been devastated by the sanctions.

Our pharmaceutical industry was dependent on imports for 90% of its raw materials, but it used to be able to meet almost all of Yugoslavia’s basic drug needs. Even though I’m extremely grateful to international humanitarian organisations, they can only provide a very small percentage of our overall drug needs. Up until recently, a little over a quarter of all the aid we received came from international relief groups. The rest came from Yugoslav expatriates in Western Europe, North America and Australia. But as a result of the latest UN resolution 820, this aid from the Yugoslav diaspora has stopped. Pharmaceutical companies here are still manufacturing drugs because they had large stocks of raw materials, but these are quickly drying up. We are gravely concerned about the consequences of the sanctions this winter. People are already malnourished. It gets very cold here in the winter, and heating is going to be a major problem. All this, together with drug shortages, will produce disastrous consequences this winter.

International organisations will not be able to make up for the lack of medicine. Even if they received enough donations, relief groups say the UN embargo is making it very difficult to get drugs into the country. Dr. Hana Vuri (sp?) is the director of the Belgrade office of the World Health Organisation.

Drugs are of course free of the embargo, but still to get the approval takes time. The sanctions committee is not very fast. Perhaps an even more important obstacle are the borders, where the neighbouring countries can be very bureaucratic and if the papers are not in full order, the convoys, the trucks can be stopped there for days or even weeks, and in some cases they have been returned back to the country of origin. And then the main thing is that even if it were simple and easy to get the trucks into the country, well a country in this type of economic situation doesn’t have the money to buy them.

The lack of drugs, general malnutrition and extreme cold this winter, say relief organisations, could lead to outbreaks of epidemics, which they will not be able to control. Even if it wanted to, there’s not much the Milosevic regime could do to alleviate the situation. The UN Security Council tightened the screws on Yugoslavia in November of last year after numerous reports of violations of the embargo. A naval blockade was imposed on the Adriatic coast, and shipments of oil and other products by roads through Yugoslavia were virtually banned. The embargo was tightened as a power struggle was being waged in Belgrade between hardliners and moderates, led by the then Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panić. In effect, says Dr. Pedrag Simić, the international community pulled the rug out from under the feet of opposition leaders.

The radical nationalists simply say: look, as long as we have you in power, there will be more and more sanctions. What we need is to be very tough with the West because only the military strength and the resoluteness is what counts in the negotiations with the West. So those moderate leaders have been completely destroyed.

By allowing itself to become obsessed by President Milošević, argues Dr. Stefan Lilić of the University of Belgrade, the international community has made a fundamental mistake.

We pleaded, for example, last year before the December elections, that a token lifting of the sanctions be granted. This would have helped the opposition and federal prime minister Milan Panic, or that you give technical assistance to independent television stations and newspapers like give paper or set up a relay system where programme can be bounced off and beamed off. But everybody seems to be obsessed by Milošević. He’s a Dracula type someone, that imagine what we found: 21st century is just around the corner. We found somebody that’s buried there for a thousand years and now the vampires have come up.

The question is: is the sword the best way to slay vampires? Opposition groups in Belgrade say no. The sanctions have only strengthened the Milošević regime and caused enormous hardship for the people, who are now so worried about survival, that they have lost all interest in politics. Whether the elections scheduled to take place in  rump Yugoslavia in November bring about a change in government remains to be seen, but regardless of the outcome, says Banicić Milos, the director of the Institute for Mother and Child in Belgrade, the sanctions must be lifted to prevent thousands of people from dying needless deaths.

We who work in the humanitarian field can’t understand the approach of the international community. The embargo is inhumane because it is directly affecting the general population. Is this the international community’s main goal to have plague and cholera in the Balkans in the middle of Europe? What is the goal of these sanctions? They’ve had absolutely no impact on the political system. The sanctions are only affecting the people. The international community has only succeeded in achieving one thing: it’s made Serbs and Montenegrins lose faith in democracy and the West’s human and democratic values.

A lifting of the sanctions would, of course, create the impression that the West has been defeated by President Milosevic. That’s why Dr. Pedrag Simić of the Institute for Political Sciences says that lifting the embargo would have to be part of a comprehensive multi-pronged effort to stop the war and force a change in political leadership in Belgrade. This would include stimulating independent media and, no matter how absurd it may sound today, encouraging economic ties among the former Yugoslav republics and the entire Balkan region.

One can consider some kind of Balkan Steel and Coal Community, various kinds of projects that would put together for example Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, even Turkey will be interested to address EBRD, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to develop infrastructure: highway for example from Zagreb to Belgrade to Sofia and Istanbul. It will be a European highway, important for all these countries and in spite of all their disputes in political and ethnic field, this is something perfectly on the common ground. In the midst of the war in Croatia, there was a quiet order for 180 battle tanks, Yugoslav brand that was produced by the former Yugoslav republics. In the midst of the war, engines were produced in Serbia, cannons in Bosnia. They have been assembled in Croatia and equipped with electronic equipment from Slovenia. They were exported in October 1991 to Kuwait, and that money they got was used to buy more weapons to fight each other. It’s anecdotal example, but it’s also an example that the economy can bring even hostile countries together.

Even opposition members in Belgrade admit that lifting the sanctions and trying other options would be a very unconventional approach. But they say the UN embargo has not stopped the war and has left millions of Serbs wondering where their next meal is going to come from. Sonia Licht of the Soros humanitarian foundation is afraid that it may take the deaths of thousands more this winter before we realise that sanctions are perhaps not the best way to bring a country into submission.

You are right. People don’t care. People care when the things become so extreme as they are in Sarajevo or in Mostar. People care when there is something extremely dramatic. But when there is this so-called low-level suffering, and it is everything but low level, people tend to simply not to remember. Take the Kurds: everybody was promising them everything two years ago and to the Shiites. Now they are a forgotten people. I’m afraid that the same thing can happen to us. After a while, and I already see the signs, this is becoming boring. Let’s move to another subject.

Sonia Licht of the Soros Foundation, ending that special report on the impact of sanctions on Serbia prepared and presented by Eric Beauchemin. I’m Ginger da Silva.