BBC - The EU's carrot and stick over Serbia

Tuesday, 7 December, 1999, 15:15 GMT

Nick Thorpe reports from Belgrade

European foreign ministers have decided to strengthen sanctions against Serbia by doubling the number of officials banned from travelling to the European Union.

Sanctions of one sort or another have been in place against the country for the best part of the 1990s.

Now they are at their toughest ever, including oil, flights, arms, investments, and visas.

The toughening of the sanctions regime came on Monday despite growing debate within the EU about its effectiveness, with some member states arguing that the sanctions hurt ordinary people most.

Ordinary Serbs blame Nato

On the fringes of a Belgrade vegetable market, elderly people spread their wares on the bonnets of cars or on the pavement. A 70 year-old sells a paltry collection of batteries, hair clips, and children's gloves.

He says he's had to leave the stall twice so far, once to queue for five kilograms of sugar, the other time to queue for three litres of cooking oil. Milk is also in short supply.

Asked who is to blame for the shortages, his answer is quite clear - Nato.

He would vote for the present government again, because they're still managing to supply basic goods to the citizens - despite international isolation.

EU develops 'smart' sanctions

Aware of such sentiments, the EU has begun to develop a more differentiated approach - smarter sanctions.

Michael Graham, head of the EU delegation in Belgrade, says Brussels is pursuing the philosophy that the Serbian people as a whole are not responsible for what has been happening.

"That it is the authorities and the government with which we have a quarrel, not the people. And that we have to find a way of hurting the people less, and maybe hurting those who are responsible for the present dire conditions, more," he said.

One example of this is the Energy for Democracy programme. The plan is to supply convoys of heating oil to cities across Serbia this winter - especially those in opposition hands.

But the first convoy only got through to its intended destination after being held up by Serbian customs for nearly two weeks at Macedonian-Yugoslav border.

So should the programme be abandoned, before it has even properly begun?

Zarko Korac, of the opposition Social Democratic Union in Belgrade, does not think so.

"Milosevic is doing something very foolish, he's not allowing these fuel imports to come in. And people are very nervous, very angry. They've been given that, and Milosevic is not allowing this oil to come. Their heating oil. And they are freezing there," he told the BBC.

Carrot and stick

If Energy for Democracy is the EU carrot, then it's also wielding a stick. The visa-ban list is a way of trying to direct the EU stick.

Some 300 high officials, starting with President Milosevic, are already banned from travelling within Europe, or North America.

Michael Graham explains the thinking behind the ban: "The visa ban may not be 100% effective but I think it is effecting most of the people it is meant to effect, and its generally regarded here in Belgrade as the most effective implement of western policy against the authorities."

He added that there was a great deal of unanimity in diplomatic circles and in opposition circles about the usefulness of this visa ban.

[URL may be different next day if article is archived]