NYT - November 3, 1999

A Policy Shift on Serbia Tied to a Free Vote

WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration, trying to strengthen the opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, has agreed to end its economic sanctions on Serbia as soon as there is a free election there, senior administration officials said Tuesday.

Washington previously vowed that the sanctions would last as long as Milosevic stayed in power.

But officials said the new strategy should let the opposition put more pressure on Milosevic, because an early election could remove the oil embargo, air-travel ban and other sanctions levied by Washington.

The sanctions, with the bombing during the war in Kosovo, have devastated the economy. But the sanctions have proven unable to dislodge President Milosevic, whose term runs to 2001.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is expected to make the announcement on Wednesday, but it carries a risk: that bickering opposition parties would so fragment the election results that Milosevic could cling to power.

Thus the United States might find itself compelled to lift its sanctions on a government still led by Milosevic, who has been indicted for war crimes by an international tribunal in The Hague. But American officials say Dr. Albright and her aides have determined that the risk is tiny and that an internationally monitored election would end Milosevic's political career.

A delegation of leading Serbian opposition figures now visiting Washington pressed for the policy change, arguing that it would allow them to increase popular pressure on Milosevic to call an election that they are certain they can win.

Polls in Serbia indicate that nearly 70 percent of voters want a new government. But the United States cannot be certain that voters will cast ballots for change and that the opposition can capitalize on the discontent to win control.

If he were to remain in power after an election, the administration would almost certainly try to prove that the vote had not been free and fair, and thus the United States would not be compelled to lift its sanctions.

"We cannot imagine, based on our analysis, that a genuinely free and fair election would allow Milosevic to remain as president," said a senior official.

Administration officials said the White House and State Department had decided on the policy shift because Washington has become convinced that the long-fragmented opposition in Serbia, the larger of the two republics remaining in Yugoslavia, is now unified in its determination to force early elections and to oust Milosevic.

"Our assumption is that Milosevic will only hold elections as a result of the pressure of the opposition's efforts," one official said. "And we are bolstering the opposition's efforts by taking away from Milosevic the idea that the sanctions are the result of American evil."

The administration has already agreed to another request from the delegation of Serbs: that Washington support a European-run pilot program to allow about $5 million worth of oil to be delivered this winter to two cities in Serbia that are governed by opponents of Milosevic.

The United States had initially been hesitant to support the program for fear that the oil might be diverted to Milosevic's business associates or the military.

American officials had also hoped that economic privations and the prospect of winter might lead to a new wave of public unrest against the government.

But American officials said they were persuaded to support the program both for humanitarian reasons and because safeguards should make it difficult for the oil to be diverted. All other economic sanctions remain in place, they stressed, and the lack of heating oil and other energy supplies in the rest of Serbia could still deepen discontent.

Serbia faces a brutal energy shortage after NATO bombers destroyed its oil refineries in the campaign to drive Serbian forces out of Kosovo.

The administration's concessions to the Serbian delegation are considered vital to the public standing of the opposition leaders, who are being portrayed in the government-controlled news media in Serbia as pro-Western traitors.

"They can now return home and announce -- with conviction -- that they helped convince the United States to shift its policy and speed up the timetable to end Serbia's isolation," an administration official said.

At a news conference on Wednesday, officials said, Dr. Albright is also expected to hold out the possibility that in exchange for free elections, the United States would commit itself to reconstruction aid for Serbia -- to help rebuild the country after the NATO bombing.

Although the Constitution of the Yugoslav Federation of Serbia and Montenegro does not grant President Milosevic direct power to call elections, the reality is that his powers are dictatorial.

"He snaps his fingers, and there will be elections," one senior administration official said. "We're trying to increase the pressure on him to snap his fingers."