The role of sanctions in the destruction of Yugoslavia (excerpt)

By Richard Becker

“The one who chooses this economic, peaceful, quiet, lethal remedy will not have to resort to force. It is not such a painful remedy. It doesn’t take a single human life outside the country exposed to boycott, but instead subjects that country to a pressure that, in my view, no modern nation can withstand.”

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, speaking on economic sanctions in Versailles, France, 1919

In 1990, the Yugoslav republic of Serbia had a gross domestic product of about $24 billion. The per capita income was over $3,000, and every person was guaranteed the right to housing, education, quality health care, a job or income, a one-month paid annual vacation, and other benefits. Three years later, Serbia’s gross domestic product had dropped to under $10 billion and per capita income was $700. People were dying from the lack of common medicines and were being operated on without anesthesia.

What brought about this catastrophe? In its relative magnitude it far exceeded the impact of the 1929-33 depression in the United States. But unlike the economic crisis of the 1930s—a product of the normal, unconscious functioning of the capitalist business cycle—Yugoslavia’s destruction was planned and created with full deliberation. The planning took place not inside the country but in the capitals of the “great” powers—Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, and, above all, Washington.

Yugoslavia’s economy was demolished by sanctions. Sanctions is a word with a deceptively mild ring to it. But the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council on Yugoslavia, today a country of ten million people, cut off the country’s economic lifeblood. Even in mid-1997, twenty months after some of the harshest sanctions were lifted, it has not really begun to recover.

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In 1991-92, Yugoslavia, a socialist federation of six republics and two autonomous regions that had existed since 1945, disintegrated in a horrific civil war. There were internal factors leading to the breakup, but the decisive role was played by the intervention of outside powers. By mid-1992, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was reduced to Serbia and Montenegro. Western-backed governments in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia had declared their independence, and Macedonia soon would do likewise.

In the early stages of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Germany and Austria encouraged and gave military support to the secessionist governments in Slovenia and Croatia. The German government, emboldened by its recent swallowing up of East Germany, was looking to extend its empire along familiar lines. Slovenia, Croatia, and, in fact, all of Yugoslavia had been conquered by Nazi Germany a half century earlier (1). But it wasn’t just Germany. The U.S., France, Italy, Britain, and Austria were all contending for influence over, and control of, pieces of the former federation and the other Balkan and East European states. The target of hostility of all these outside powers was the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Serbian forces living outside the now-shrunken borders of Yugoslavia.

The attack on the FRY was justified by a media campaign labeling “the Serbs” as war criminals and violators of human rights. There were undoubtedly war crimes, crimes against humanity, and violations of human rights committed in the civil war by Serbs, and also by Croatians and Muslims. It was a war fought on the basis of nationality against nationality.

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The outside powers who wanted to break up the old Yugoslav federation fanned the flames of nationalism and secession, knowing full well what a civil war fought on this basis would mean. These same powers have themselves committed crimes against humanity all over the world, for which they have yet to answer—in Vietnam, the Congo, Algeria, Ireland, Guatemala, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the slave trade, the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas—the list is long indeed. So, when the governments responsible for the historic and contemporary oppression of so much of humanity invoke “human rights” as justification for punishing Yugoslavia (or any country, for that matter), they should be challenged, especially by progressives. The role of sanctions is an important issue for the anti-war and anti-intervention movement, particularly because they are increasingly being used by the U.S. government against developing countries. This chapter will attempt to show how, under the banner of protecting human rights, sanctions were used as a key weapon in destroying Yugoslavia, promoting civil war, and inflicting great suffering on the people in Yugoslavia and throughout the region.

(1) See, e.g., former U.S. Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman, “The Last Ambassador, A Memoir of the Collapse of Yugoslavia,” Foreign Affairs, v. 74, n. 2, 1995.


The full text of this chapter is available in the book, NATO in the Balkans. Link here for order information.