August 1, 2000

Milosevic Empowered by Punishment Politics

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One year after NATO’s bombs devastated Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic remains firmly entrenched as the nation’s leader. Although he was previously prevented from seeking another term, a “constitutional coup” by the Serbian-controlled parliament earlier this month resulted in constitutional amendments allowing Milosevic to run for re-election, and changing the requirements for election of president and Parliament.

Prior to the changes, it would have been impossible for Milosevic to continue his tenure as President of Yugoslavia beyond July of 2001. The amendment gives Milosevic the option of running for two additional four-year terms. Whereas the constitution had required the election of the president by the federal Parliament, the amendment provides for presidential election by a majority of the popular vote, which would blunt the effect of an opposition boycott. Finally, the election of Parliamentary deputies will now result from a popular vote, instead of by separate votes of the Montenegrin and Serbian assemblies. This change dilutes the power of the government of Montenegro to elect deputies hostile to Milosevic.

Parliamentary and local elections had been scheduled to take place in November 2000 and the presidential election was set for January 2001. Last week, however, Milosevic announced that Serbia and the Yugoslav federation will hold presidential, parliamentary and local elections September 24.

I was told at a recent international conference in Belgrade that there is widespread opposition to Milosevic in Yugoslavia. Results of a public opinion poll published last week shows Milosevic with only 13.7 percent support. So how can he be confident he would win a popular election?

The bombing, the economic sanctions and Milosevic’s war crimes indictment just weeks before the peace agreement all serve to perpetuate his power. It is the Serbian people who are being held hostage by NATO’s misguided and failed policy of punishment politics.

In 1992, to facilitate the secession of Slovenia, Croatia and later Bosnia and Kosovo from Yugoslavia, the United States pushed the U.N. Security Council to impose economic sanctions, a total blockade of the country. Enforced by military means, the sanctions blockade was policed by the U.S. Navy and its NATO allies who patrolled the Adriatic Sea and the Danube River, stopping all vessels possibly bound for Yugoslavia. Air traffic to and from Yugoslavia was blocked by NATO jets, and a 1995 bombing campaign in Bosnia ended with the Dayton Accords. The United States has continued to prevent Yugoslavia from receiving new credit and loans.

The 78-day bombing campaign last year was followed by the occupation of Kosovo, new sanctions and an oil embargo against Yugoslavia. The United States recently renewed these sanctions, and the European Union tightened trade sanctions in April.

Although responsible for an estimated $4 billion worth of damage to the infrastructure of Yugoslavia, the West has refused to provide economic assistance for reconstruction as long as Milosevic remains in power.

Yet Milosevic holds a tight reign while his people suffer. Roughly one-third of the labor force remains unemployed and the United Nations estimates that about two-thirds of the population lives in poverty. Production levels are way down, there is no exportation of goods and Yugoslavia is cut off from most international markets. Credit cards are no longer available to the people. They cannot send money abroad, and the airport looks deserted. Dozens of bridges and hundreds of apartments remain damaged by the bombs.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright made it clear that the United States would only agree to lift the sanctions if free elections are held. A recent public opinion poll showed that although two-thirds of Serbs want political change, 40 percent of eligible voters don’t know which party to vote for in the local and federal elections.

Although life was tough before the sanctions, it has worsened since. Many Serbs blame the West for the sanctions, as well as the bombing. The indictment of Milosevic just before the peace accord was signed effectively prevented any possibility he might step down as part of the agreement. His best chance to avoid prosecution for war crimes is by staying in power.

As the Bay of Pigs tightened Castro’s hold on power in Cuba, so did the NATO bombing solidify nationalist sentiments in favor of the government in Yugoslavia. And like the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba failed in its goal of overthrowing Castro, the sanctions against Yugoslavia have failed to unseat Milosevic. An overthrow requires a strong, organized internal opposition, which doesn’t exist in Yugoslavia, or in Cuba. The sanctions have failed in their goals and have only punished the people. The West should rethink its policies in both of these countries.