As Sanctions Bite, Serbs Look Warily Toward Winter

The Washington Post
August 18, 1992

BELGRADE – After two months, the U.N. trade embargo against Serbia and the new Yugoslav state it controls is beginning to bite.

Gasoline rationing limits motorists to about five gallons a month, and people here in the Yugoslav capital must wait in gas lines for hours. The state is virtually bankrupt, and inflation is running at a ruinous 100 percent per month. The average monthly wage is now worth less than $38, and labor union officials here say they expect that up to 80 percent of all workers will be jobless by fall.

As always in times of economic crisis, it is the defenseless who suffer most. Belgrade’s main hospital is so strapped for cash that it can only perform emergency surgeries. “Everything that can be delayed is delayed,” said Zoaran Zivanovic, a general surgeon. “Benign tumors will wait until the end of our political problems.”

The city’s chief psychiatric center can no longer afford costly antipsychotic medication, so patients are immobilized with straitjackets or warehoused through massive sedation. But now there is only a week’s supply of sedatives left, and doctors have launched a television appeal for citizens to donate whatever tranquilizers they might have. “We are returning to the Middle Ages, unfortunately,” said hospital spokesman Milica Butigec.

There has been some talk of using more electro-convulsive therapy as a substitute for antipsychotic drugs, but the procedure is controversial and many doctors are reluctant to employ it. Besides, they say, pretty soon there may be a shortage of electricity and heating fuel in Belgrade, and that is what has people here worried most.

The U.N. sanctions — imposed on the two-republic Yugoslav state as punishment for its instigation of Serb aggression in neighboring Bosnia — are far from watertight, but they have given rise to a question that seems to be on everyone’s lips: Will there be enough oil when cold weather strikes?

“I’m terrified about the winter,” said Branka Lutic, a 72-year-old pensioner who even now can barely afford to feed herself as inflation steadily eats away at her tiny state allowance.

Milorad Kalenic, who lives outside Belgrade, is trying to prepare for a harsh winter. He believes the factory he works in will be shut down by October and that no home heating fuel will be available, so he has been stockpiling wood for his fireplace, along with 130 pounds of sugar, 110 pounds of meat and 5 gallons of cooking oil. “About 80 percent of the people in my village have stocks like that,” he said.

The U.N. sanctions bar all imports of oil, but local production accounts for about 22 percent of all fuel needs for Serbia and its seaboard satellite, Montenegro; a good deal more is smuggled in on a massive scale. One Western diplomat here acknowledged that foreign oil is slipping through the sanctions, and he said that some Western nations are seeking to have international observers monitor all Yugoslav borders and Danube River traffic destined for Serbia.

The “leakage” occurs in a number of ways. The Danube flows through four countries west of Serbia and through two east of it, and sanctions-busting barges laden with oil or other products need only acquire false “end-user” certificates that say their cargo is destined somewhere beyond Serbia. Once in Serbian waters, the cargo can be unloaded.

Diplomats say also that Serbian tanker trucks need only change their license plates to Bosnian ones and then go to a neighboring country — Hungary or Romania, for example — to pick up a load of fuel. In addition, Belgrade-controlled firms have purportedly set up bogus subsidiaries in Bosnia and Macedonia — neither of which is subject to the U.N. embargo — to order and acquire petroleum products and other sanctioned commodities.

Even before the U.N. sanctions were voted in June, the economies of Serbia and Montenegro were in desperate shape. The treasury had been beggared by the massive financial support needed for the Serb militia faction in the Bosnian war and, before that, for Serb insurgent forces during last year’s six-month war in neighboring Croatia. Moreover, Western analysts say, Belgrade’s finances had been hopelessly tangled by widspread official corruption and ineptitude under the leadership of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the last Marxist leader in Europe.

Serbia’s per capita production plummeted by $2,000 last year to $1,300, and analysts say this year should be worse. Rampant inflation means that paychecks and pensions have lost most of their purchasing value. Belgrade residents say they are cutting down on meat and other staples; cars are being stored away; government subsidies to industries, schools, hospitals and other public institutions no longer cover costs.

Serbs are angry about their pauperization, but for now their target is not Milosevic, who is assiduously trying to turn economic adversity to political advantage. Day after day, state-controlled television broadcasts speeches and news programs that portray the outside world as unjustly ganging up on Serbia and hammers home the message that the suffering here is no fault of the current regime.

Zoran Popov, a prominent economist here, says the strategy hasworked even to the extent of allowing Milosevic to use the U.N. sanctions as an excuse for all the present economic problems. Pensioner Lutic is among those who believe the government line. She strongly supports Milosevic even though she is afraid of freezing in the winter and can no longer afford to eat decent meals on her monthly pension. Most nights, she eats potatoes, pasta or beans. “I’m a true Serb,” she said. “And I’m mad that everyone is against us. They want to kill Serbia.”

A Western diplomat agreed that the sanctions “have tended to reinforce Milosevic” in the short term — that and a bumper summer harvest. He added, though, that if the weather turns cold and holes in the embargo can be plugged, things could change quickly.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.