Sanctions will not topple this man

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The Independent Culture
WANT TO topple Slobodan Milosevic? Try lifting sanctions.

Last night, Europe's most notorious politician was finally delivered to justice. After a marvellous, disciplined display of people power on the streets of Belgrade, Serbia's "electric revolution" (so called because it began with a wave of winter power cuts) culminated in the united democratic opposition peacefully seizing power. In marked contrast to the revolution in neighbouring Romania exactly 10 years ago, the Serbian opposition leaders did not summarily execute Milosevic. Instead, they handed him over to the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague. What an auspicious way to end the 20th century...

Well, no. Sorry, that was all just a Christmas dream.

In fact, what I found on a visit to Serbia earlier this month was nothing at all like that fantasy. A "Galtieri effect", with the dictator falling as the result of losing a war, is yet to be seen. Instead, Milosevic has used the Kosovo war and its aftermath to tighten the screws on his opponents. Despite the bombing and sanctions, he seems to be getting through the winter thanks to Russian gas, aid from China, and who knows what backdoor deals. There are more power cuts in Nato-occupied Pristina than in Belgrade.

The Serbian opposition is still terribly divided. Street demonstrations organised by the Alliance for Change, a loose coalition of some of the more liberal opposition parties, have failed to secure early elections. The atmosphere is horrible: a devil's cocktail of resentment, cynicism, humiliated pride and paranoia. Belgrade is not a nice place to be - especially if you're British or American.

This does not mean that Milosevic is Europe's Saddam Hussein. Most people I talk to feel that Serbia is in some sort of end-game. Even a banker formerly close to Milosevic and his powerful wife, Mira Markovic, describes this as a "pre-transition period". But the "transition" could take a long time. What is more, very few people believe that it will be peaceful. Dragoslav Avramovic, the wily old economist who leads the Alliance for Change, reminds me that only one or two modern Serbian rulers have ended their reigns peacefully.

Now the Serbian opposition has a lot to answer for itself. It has been hopelessly disunited. With a very few exceptions, almost everyone involved has been ambiguous or silent about Milosevic's conduct in Bosnia and Kosovo. Vuk Draskovic and his Serbian Renewal Movement have cut deals with the Milosevic regime and garnered the spoils of city government in Belgrade. His main rival, Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party, enjoys, if anything, even less popular credibility.

On the other hand, these opponents can fairly complain that the West did not do more to support them at the time of the great student-led demonstrations of 1996-97.

In any case, I think it's worth listening closely to what independent, critical Serbs have to say about how the West might increase the small possibility of a political change that is both rapid and peaceful in Serbia. And change in Serbia remains the key to the prospects for the whole region. I find that a wide range of independent and oppositional figures in Belgrade - most of whom have nothing but poison for each other - say two things with staggering unanimity.

The first is startling and difficult: Milosevic must be given some way out. They hate Milosevic much more than we do, and with good reason: for the last victims of Milosevic are without question the Serbs themselves. He has ruined their country. Some even feel he is leading them in a sort of collective suicide (and they recall that both his own parents committed suicide). Many would like to see him hung, drawn and quartered. However, they insist, if we want peaceful change inside Serbia, Milosevic must be offered some safe exit. Even the most radical young student leader says this. At the moment, Milosevic has his back to the wall. Wounded, cornered tigers are especially dangerous; and this one is striking out. Opposition activists are being harassed and beaten up. There have been several killings of prominent figures which may be attributed, with more or less plausibility, to some part of the security apparatus. Serbian politics are becoming a matter of life and death.

Even if, sooner or later, the opposition win elections (despite electoral fraud and Milosevic's control of state television), they simply can't imagine him peacefully giving up power. Where would he then go? The Hague?

I understand the internal political logic of their argument. But I see no way in which the West could be party to such a deal, without undermining one of the pillars of the liberal international order that we are trying to build for the 21st century. All the more reason, then, to listen carefully to their second request: lift sanctions!

This does not mean all sanctions. They think those which directly target the regime and its supporters should actually be strengthened. The Western visa-ban list, which now has some 600 names on it, has a major impact, especially on prominent business supporters of Milosevic. Anything we can do to hit their foreign assets is good too. These characters remain loyal to Milosevic not for ideological reasons, not even primarily out of fear, but for personal advantage.

Sanctions against the people, however, are counter-productive. They impoverish them, they cut them off from the outside world and, most important, they only serve to boost the propaganda image that Milosevic has so successfully exploited for so long: embattled little Serbia, persecuted by the whole world and yet, heroically, defying it. Unsurprisingly, the fact that we bombed ordinary people in Serbia, in order to stop Milosevic from doing his worst in Kosovo, has strengthened this stereotype.

Most ordinary Serbs have not been out of the country for years. They don't fully realise just how far their country has fallen behind. They are so deep in their own misery and the complex of victimhood (yes, the Serbs see themselves as victims) that they no longer believe that the West offers an alternative to Milosevic. A former village mayor in Serbia's wooded rural heartland, the Sumadija, makes the point simply but vividly. He lifts a Biro off his desk. Look, he says, if I see a better Biro, if it's in reach and I think I might one day afford it, then I'll go for it. But if you're so far away, and in the dark anyway, you won't bother.

So: tear down the iron curtain of sanctions! Let fresh air in! Let ordinary people travel, and see for themselves! Wouldn't this enable Milosevic to say: "You see, you can have me and the West?" No, they all assure me, it would have the opposite effect.

Several Western European governments also incline to this view. The Clinton administration seems still firmly attached to sanctions, although its hopes of Milosevic being toppled in the aftermath of the war have been disappointed. So this looks like a replay of a Cold War argument inside the Western alliance, with Europe pleading for a softer approach to the Soviet Union out of cravenness and self-interest. But it's not.

I have always felt that we should be guided in the application of sanctions by the opposition in the country concerned. Thus, it was right to impose sanctions on Poland and South Africa in the Eighties, because Solidarity and the ANC wanted them. It is also right now to keep sanctions on Burma, because the undisputed leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, says we should. But here, the opposite is true. I am not at all sure that lifting sanctions would have the desired effect, and I certainly don't believe my dream will come true. Serbia is too far gone for that. But isn't it worth a try?

This article is based on an essay which will appear in the next `New York Review of Books'

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