Inside File: Britain's 'forked tongue' on Serb sanctions

IF THE American government had had its way last week, thousands of British holidaymakers might have found themselves left high and dry in August.

One of the US proposals to punish President Slobodan Milosevic for his failure to bring the Bosnian Serbs under control was to close down every business in the world with any Serbian connection whatsoever. One such business is Medchoice Holidays Ltd in the United Kingdom. Until the dismemberment of Yugoslavia in 1991, the company was known as Yugotours; its ultimate parent company remains Genex, Belgrade - one of the former Yugoslavia's state-run behemoths; yet it does not run tours to the former Yugslavia any more; its biggest destinations are now Greece and Turkey. Since the imposition of sanctions against Serbia in May 1992, Medchoice's payments to overseas suppliers are monitored by the Bank of England to ensure they do not end up in Serbian hands. The company says it is kept scrupulously up to date by the Department of Trade and Industry of any new sanctions-related directives.

The rather extreme nature of America's blanket proposal was resisted by France and Britain as possibly xenophobic. Yet US diplomats, as ever scathing of Britain's 'weak-kneed' policy towards Belgrade, attributed the British reservations differently. 'They pretend to have principled objections, but they just don't want to upset the British voters in the holiday season,' said a US official. 'They pretend in public they are in favour of tougher sanctions, but in private it's a different story. The British are speaking with forked tongue.'

The US had originally sought to summon the other four members of the 'Contact Group' on the former Yugoslavia to rush to Washington last Saturday to map out a United Nations resolution for the tightening of sanctions. The four - Britain, France, Germany and Russia - declined.

The meeting was eventually held on Tuesday, but by that time the American tune had changed slightly. The US was no longer insisting on a blanket ban on companies; the agreed draft text to be held in preparation for any new Security Council resolution focused largely on closing holes in the existing sanctions regime.

On the same day, Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, was answering reporters' questions on board his plane after a Middle East peace shuttle. He said: 'If there is a substantial period of enforcement, of the intention that was expressed, if the border was effectively closed and if the Bosnian Serbs seem to be deprived of important aid and war-making materiel, clearly there then would be a case for easing sanctions.'

Mr Christopher's remarks should not be interpreted as a drastic shift in policy; he was observing the carrot part of the Contact Groups's two-pronged policy vis-a-vis Belgrade.

There were some pretty significant 'ifs' built into his statements, which many doubt that Mr Milosevic seriously intends to satisfy. Yet it does mean Medchoice, and the British holidaymaker, can relax for now.

At any rate, it is not just the British who are not as gung-ho as the Americans about imposing new sanctions in the name of pacifying anti-Serb public opinion at home. The Germans, usually at one with the US on demands such as lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims, find the whole subject an unpleasant irrelevance. 'We don't much like this discussion about sanctions; it is too theoretical,' said one German envoy. 'Because the Serbs do what they want, with sanctions or without sanctions. It is very bad for us to be seen sitting around discussing it.' In other words, Bonn knows that such a discussion is not going to help Chancellor Helmut Kohl win re-election in October.

Ultimately, any diplomat will admit, sanctions are just one way for governments to express that they do not like what another government is doing, but that they are not ready to go to war over it. The complexity of the sanctions debate is amply illustrated by the case of Iraq: the 'progressive liberals' who in 1990 were arguing against going to war, and asking for sanctions to be given time to work instead, are now those complaining that the sanctions are causing the Iraqi people undue hardship. But Western governments are, for now at least, resisting the temptation to hand Saddam Hussein a diplomatic victory by lifting them.