Don't use a sledgehammer on the Serbs

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The Independent Online
IT IS sad to watch from here in Belgrade you good people in the West wrestling with all these sanctions. So much time and effort by so many institutions, observers, experts, mediators, troops, customs officers, warships. So much money. And it's no use]

This must sound crude and cynical. But it is true. No military might and no army of bureaucrats can shut all the channels used for smuggling. (Proof? The United States during Prohibition.) Nor am I sure a sufficient number of Serbs would move to bring down their 'beloved president' just because sanctions were sending them back to their horses and bicycles, or because soft imported toilet paper was being replaced by the rough local version. (Proof? Iraq these past two years.)

The logic behind the sanctions is the logic of the Westerner, spoilt by the plenitude of a prosperous state. But Serbs and Montenegrins function differently. They have never known the blessings of a prosperous state.

So far the sanctions are affecting only the urban population, where most people are opposed to President Milosevic's regime anyway. So they are hitting the very people who want to oust him. The break in communications (we need visas to go almost anywhere abroad, and must travel 400km to the nearest foreign airport), the information and cultural blockade (foreign newspapers and books are no longer sold in Belgrade) and the world's disgust with Serbs have greatly weakened the opposition's political position.

Sanctions have also reinforced the egalitarian mind-set and social strata on which the regime depends. The Serbian peasant is basically a subsistence farmer, depending on the outside world only for petrol to take his produce to market. Even if sanctions hit the peasants, they are so politically diffuse, and inert, that they could hardly overthrow the regime.

The Serbian working class hovers somewhere between village and town. Numerically dominant, it has reduced its needs to survival level. The regime's role as guardian has so reinforced egalitarianism in the working class that anyone promising some sort of social security automatically wins its support. Any aspirant to power who mentions competition encounters fear and rejection.

Sanctions may have led to the closure of almost 70 per cent of Serbia's production capacity, but the regime has secured for all these workers their regular salaries. It is simply printing money. It is also turning a blind eye to smuggling, thus buying social peace and political support.

None of this would work in the West, but it works in Serbia, first because life has not changed all that much in the past 50 years, and second because most Serbs and Montenegrins are still satisfied with 'freedom and three meals a day'.

Third, and perhaps most important, people are terrified by the fabrications of the regime's propaganda machine, which rants about 'enemies of the Serbian people', and they are traumatised by the tragedies of the recent past. Can you imagine the mood of a nation that, in three years, has seen the downfall of an almost 50-year-old (Communist) regime, the disintegration of a state that had provided reasonable security for most of the century, the outbreak of war and the future depicted as an unending string of sanctions, siege and civil strife?

In such circumstances, naturally, people rally around the National Leader, the Saviour . . . even if he is a dictator. Especially as the opposition seems not to know what it wants. Serbs are living in resignation and despair, like people facing their executioner. Can a regime be toppled in such an atmosphere? I fear not.

The West's constant barrage of threats throws Serbs into the arms of the present regime. Serbs who do not yet feel hit by sanctions (the majority) see them as proof of the world's malevolence, reinforcing the propaganda. People who correspond with the West - urban Serbs, intellectuals, opponents of the regime - are seen as having 'sold their souls to the devil', 'spies', 'enemies of their own people'. This, of course, eliminates the few who might offer an alternative to Mr Milosevic.

If you want to bring the Serbs to their senses, please don't use a sledgehammer] You've spent piles of money already. Had you invested some in, say, a Serbian television station, an alternative to the state- run channel, whose programmes reek of nationalism, hatred and warmongering, the impact would have been greater than anything the observers, customs officers and warships and could achieve.

The author is a commentator for the Belgrade-based newspaper 'Borba'.