The time for evenhandedness has passed: Sanctions against Croatia would curb moderate influences and hinder humanitarian efforts, warns Robert Block

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'IT IS too little, too late, and often wrong.' The author of that statement, a leading Croatian intellectual, was summing up the West's response to each new twist in the Balkan drama. The latest move to fit that description is a push for sanctions against Croatia for its role in the Bosnian war. And Britain stands at the fore of those countries demanding that Croatia be treated in the same way as Serbia, history's Balkan baddie.

It is undeniable that Croats have joined Serbs in slaughtering and uprooting Muslims in a shameless Bosnian land grab. There is little doubt, too, that President Franjo Tudjman had a role in starting the Yugolsav conflict. But the question to ask is not whether Croatia deserves to be punished, but what do we hope to achieve by sanctions?

If they were meant purely as a punitive measure for Croatia's excesses, they would probably be a huge success. The Croatian economy is already teetering on the brink of disaster thanks to almost five decades of Communist mismanagement. Western Europe is Croatia's biggest export market and EC sanctions would undoubtedly push the Croatian economy over the edge.

But if it is the West's intention to break the backs of hardliners in Zagreb and stop their support for irredentist Croats in Bosnia, such a move will almost certainly backfire.

For more than a year now the international community has tried to maintain one of the strictest ever regimes of sanctions against Serbia, but the embargo has neither brought down Slobodan Milosevic nor led to a popular uprising against his nationalist goals. On the contrary, sanctions have strengthened the nationalists and led to the emergence of a criminal class for whom sanctions-busting and smuggling are patriotic duties often rewarded with political largesse.

Sanctions against Croatia would almost certainly have the same result; strengthening the forces that need to be undermined and undermining those that need to be strengthened.

In Croatia, the fiercest champions of nationalism hail from Herzegovina and are politely known as the 'Herzegovina Lobby'. More often and less charitably they are called 'the mobitel and white socks brigade' - the portable telephone is a symbol of their newfound wealth and power, while the white socks are emblematic of their crassness. They hold influential positions in Mr Tudjman's party, the government and the army. Needless to say they wield tremendous influence and are widely despised by other Croats. Led most visibly by the Defence Minister, Gojko Susak, the lobby wants west Herzegovina to join the Croatian state. Most Croats elsewhere show no desire to annex the area and detest those they see as leading them toward ruin.

There are signs that the Herzegovina influence is waning and that moderates opposed to widening the war in Bosnia are emerging as an important force: Croat analysts point to Josip Manolic - an ex-secret policeman who is now head of Croatia's committee for normalising relations with Serbia - and important industrialists in the government who have moved towards the centre.

Sanctions, however, would undoubtedly squash these emerging forces. The West's humanitarian effort would also suffer. Many humanitarian and UN personnel are based in Croatia and badly needed supplies for all three sides in the conflict must pass through Croatia. Should the West impose sanctions, Zagreb could tell the UN and aid agencies to leave.

Perhaps a better way to signal the West's displeasure would be a Security Council resolution condemning Zagreb for its role in ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Mr Tudjman is obsessed with his image in history and far more susceptible to outside pressure than his Serbian counterpart.

An alternative, still better than full sanctions, would be a ban on all commercial air links. This would destroy any ambition Croatia has of reviving its tourist industry and would be far less damaging than full sanctions.

The West's desire to show evenhandedness is understandable. Muslims in Bosnia feel as threatened by Mr Tudjman's nationalism as by Mr Milosevic's expansionist ambitions. But the time for evenhandedness has passed. Sanctions against Croatia even six months ago would have been a welcome way of punishing the Croats for their crimes while reassuring the Serbs that the world was not out to get only them. This did not happen and the Serbs have already taken what they wanted irrespective of sanctions. Sanctions against Croatia, as a move to stop the bloodshed, would unfortunately be too little, too late and wrong.