International trade sanctions imposed against various states in recent years can be roughly divided into two categories:

  1. Token sanctions like those imposed on South Africa in the 1980s. The function of these is more diplomatic than economic.
  2. Real blockades like those imposed on Iraq and Haiti. These are designed to directly crush the proletariat through mass starvation and to reinforce national unity by enabling the regime to blame austerity measures on the foreign blockade.

The arms embargo against the whole of ex-Yugoslavia is an example of the first type. It certainly hasn't prevented Croatia from developing a formidable army, as has clearly been shown since August 1995, when "Republika Srpska Krajina" was overrun by the Croatian Army in a few days.

The general sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro are an example of the second type which became a lot less successful than intended.

A general economic blockade was declared by the UN Security Council on 30 May 1992, just a month after the declaration of the "Federative Republic of Yugoslavia" (SRJ) at the end of April. A month after the blockade began the SRJ authorities put a set of austerity measures in place involving a partial freezing of prices preceded by large increases in the prices of petrol and electricity. As the effect of sanctions increased there was an almost complete shut down of industry - jokes became common about how Belgrade had become an "ecological city" with almost no industry or cars. There was a spate of suicides by elderly people who did not want to be a burden on their families, but real starvation was rare. This was because Serbia was largely self-sufficient in food due to the existence of a large peasant sector.

The policy of the state became more and more one of simply attacking working class living standards through inflation - a traditional method of paying for a war. Whilst in 1992 the annual rate of inflation was a mere 20,000%, towards the end of 1993 it reached 100% per day! The effect of this was to render wages virtually worthless - people carried on going to work just so as not to lose their jobs and to steal or reappropriate whatever their work-places had to offer. The Deutschmark became the de facto currency. This meant that many proletarians who had acquired savings in DM which they used to buy occasional luxury items had to use them up to buy food. Inflation, though, is a double-edged sword - it wipes out income and debt. In the modern world it's very easy to go into debt - for example, by writing a cheque or by having an outstanding bill. Electricity and telephones became effectively free, as did train journeys - before long there weren't any notes of low enough denomination to pay the fares with. You could even pay your taxes in full at almost no cost. This meant that effectively the state had no revenue.

The state had, however, developed a novel form of taxation/fraud in the form of banks taking hard currency deposits and offering generous rates of interest. One of these was the Dafiment bank which collapsed in April 1993. It had links with many famous politicians and paramilitary leaders. As long as deposits kept pouring in it could keep making the interest payments. The bubble inevitably burst and the founders of the bank disappeared with the deposits of hundreds of thousands of customers. The bank's half-built headquarters still towers over Slavija Square in Belgrade.

At the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994 the working class became increasingly rebellious with strikes of some description breaking out in most of the sectors still functioning. In particular, there were industry-wide simultaneous strikes by the miners and the railworkers at the end of 1993 which paralysed the country. Partly in response to this the ruling class simply abolished inflation. This was done literally overnight (23-24 January 1994 to be precise) by the introduction of a New Dinar, tied to the Deutschmark. This brought inflation down to a manageable 100% per year and, to some extent, restarted the economy and, most importantly, restored state revenue. The restarting of the economy was possible because sanctions were becoming less and less effective as appropriate prices were negotiated with capitalists in the surrounding countries.

It hardly needs saying that this didn't improve matters very much for the working class. In the words of a leaflet distributed by the Torpedo group:

"There are more and more people who openly yearn for the days of hyperinflation when they manipulated cheques to be able to survive and to pay all the 'obligations' to the state. Today, with miserable wages and high prices of food, electricity, clothes and shoes, and those high taxes, it is almost impossible (of course, we must also consider the mean-spirited partial payment of wages, with a delay and partly in food or with a loan with interest). Then, besides the 'regular' job there is the indispensable speculation on the black market necessary for bare survival."

Sanctions have certainly enabled leading members of the ruling party, and their gangster allies, to amass enormous personal fortunes through black market operations, but the ruling class have also had to sacrifice profits in order to maintain the social peace.

At the time of writing (early 1996) the official economy is still largely state controlled and the economic policy of the state is still oriented towards providing something approaching full employment, or at least something closer to it than in most other parts of Europe... Even during 1993 there were no mass lay-offs. This is changing, but most of the state sector still carries on providing the same level of jobs - a large percentage of the workers on the pay-rolls of big factories literally have nothing to do. State owned shops are also a major source of employment - even a small one might employ several staff and do almost no business. For a worker the best situation is to be laid off on reduced pay, that way you get a guaranteed income from the state and you can use your time to make money on the black market. The existence of the black market means that workers are less afraid of being sacked because they can easily find some kind of work there. Essentially the black market functions as a very large inefficient retail sector. You're never going to get rich selling cigarettes and chocolate by the side of the road but you can probably earn as much as working in a factory. Not surprisingly the state has recently starting trying to reduce the role of the black market with increased police raids on street sellers. There is even a proposal to legalise black market activity but in designated places where it is easily controlled. The absurd pretence that the New Dinar is worth one Deutschmark has been abandoned and the official rate is now very close to the black market rate.

All the while the ruling class have blamed every attack on living standards on sanctions and tried to claim that the lifting of sanctions will solve everyone's problems. In reality this will almost certainly be the signal for a generalised restructuring of Serbia's archaic industry and the removal of social guarantees. The reintroduction of sanctions will remain a real possibility if the resulting social revolts cannot be contained.

In January 1996 the UN chief war crimes prosecutor Richard Goldstone said that sanctions might have to be reimposed (they were suspended as part of the Dayton agreement) if the Serbian government didn't cooperate in handing over "war criminals". In February the US Secretary of State pitched in with a statement that SRJ could not be rehabilitated until it not only handed over war criminals but also "restores human rights" in Kosovo. This effectively gives Miloševic and the rest of the international bourgeoisie the capability of restoring sanctions any time they think it's necessary for the control of the working class in Serbia.



In Yugoslavia, as in Somalia and in every other war-torn region, humanitarian aid functions as a means of maintaining the war effort. Outside the affected region it provides a wonderful alibi for intervention by the armies of the most powerful states and makes these states appear caring. Inside the region it directly supports military operations through the large percentage of food aid which is used to feed front-line troops.

This reality is clearly expressed in an article from the Slovenian magazine Mladina (April 1993) entitled "The Battle of the Parcels". Here are some excerpts:

"On both sides of the front line the humanitarian parcels nourish the combatants. Serbs, Croats and Muslims eat the same canned food. Inspected, looted, the humanitarian convoys have become a means of political blackmail. A battle by itself. Up to the point where TV networks have become more interested in what is happening to them than to the war victims.

... Coming from the sea side near Mostar, the trucks belt along day and night. Trucks with multicolour stickers on them: Equilibre, Merhamet, ICRC, Médecins sans frontières, Pharmaciens sans frontières, Egyptian Agency for Humanitarian Aid, Nachbar in Not, Red Cross, UNHCR, Secours populaire français, Caritas, Agir pour réagir ...From a distance you would think it was an army of crusaders whose standard is children with outstretched arms, children protected by adult hands, children that look at the world ... On each parcel, on each box or bag the same labels have been stuck, mentioning its origin: donated by UNHCR, donated by the European Community, donated by the Government of the Netherlands, donated by the people of Germany. So that people won't mistakenly think that these parcels have just fallen down from heaven. The most incredible box of all has the form of a pyramid, a box of beef cooked in its juice, wrapped up in blue paper with the twelve stars of the EC printed on it in gold letters, but without any indication of its content. Just the thing itself, the "Twelve" cooked in their own juice! On some other trucks you can see the images of Jesus on his cross, of a crescent moon on a green background, or an incredible variety of logos of the UN.

... Those who are entitled to receive the humanitarian aid are claiming it. The others just take whatever they think they deserve. From the moment when the Croats and the Serbs of Bosnia-Hercegovina understood that the Muslims had definitely lost the war and that the international community was ready to ratify their defeat in official documents, they didn't see any reason to continue the war. Whatever could possibly be looted, already had been. The economy broken down, the shops empty: the only wealth left is the humanitarian convoys. They have a double function. On one hand, they are the basis of some additional profit, the basis of a new economy and they serve the logistics of several armies, because all army units that make war in Bosnia-Hercegovina eat the same cans from the same humanitarian convoys. On the other hand they are a means of political blackmail.

The convoys that arrive from Split are progressively relieved of the fuel they transport while the arms are transferred to Croatian garrisons and the most valuable freight simply disappears. At Kiseljak, on the border between the Serbian and Croatian territories, the convoys arrive much lighter. At Ilidža the Serbs prepare a humanitarian trap for them:

"Your convoy is humanitarian, isn't it?"
"Yes, completely. We want to help our fellow man."
"Fine. So the political differences don't interest you?"
"Not at all."
"So you will willingly leave 30% of your cargo to the Serbian Red Cross, won't you?"

What can the man in charge of the convoy do when he's got a machine gun pointed at him? He willingly leaves 30% of his cargo while slipping 1000 or 2000 DM in to the hands of the chief of police so that no additional problems arise. What this 30% means, only the Serbian police can say. What determines this, of course, is the quality of the contents. If it's coffee, then "30%" means "to the last bean". With some luck the convoy has been able to keep half of its cargo upon arriving in Sarajevo. The other half can be found either with the soldiers in the mountains or with the Serbs who sell it to the Croats of Kiseljak, who in turn sell it to the soldiers of UNPROFOR, to the drivers of the trucks and to the population who were entitled to receive the cargo in the first place. A convoy that does not respect these rules can wait for days or even weeks to get through."

More subtle is the use of aid as a means of social control. Food aid can be used to lure people to a refugee camp that they don't want to go to or to persuade them to stay in a besieged city that they would rather leave. It can be distributed selectively – as in Sarajevo where the authorities have prevented aid from reaching the families of draft dodgers.

Occasionally, starving proletarians have resisted the capitalist logic of aid in the most direct way: by plundering aid convoys. In January 1994, angry crowds from around Kakanj on the main road between Zenica and Sarajevo set up a barricade of logs to stop an aid convoy guarded by the Bosnian military police (Guardian, 29 January 1994). According to the UN, the crowd shot at the cops and threw a grenade, injuring six of them. They then looted several trucks. A senior official of UN High Commission for Refugees admitted that there was a "suspicion" that supplies were being used to feed the Bosnian Army at the expense of civilians and refugees. He added: "We've now got Bosnian shooting Bosnian to steal food. This is a dangerous escalation". Indeed it is "dangerous" – for those who would rather see a thousand proletarians slaughtered on the battle fields than see a single cop fall in the class war.

Even where it reaches people who are really starving, humanitarian aid is always a conservative enterprise because it aims to provide people with food so they can go about their capitalist daily lives, working for "their" bosses and fighting for "their" country. What appears to be a favour to starving proletarians is actually a subsidy to the local bourgeoisie. It reduces their bills for wages and military supplies, as well as enabling them to make fortunes by simply selling aid goods – across ex-Yugoslavia it's not at all unusual to find "humanitarian" medical supplies on sale in private pharmacies. This is particularly obvious in situations where the aid organisation simply hands over supplies to the local authorities to distribute as they see fit. This also has the advantage that the aid organisation can deny all responsibility for blatant cases of corruption and diversion of goods to the military, as UN spokespeople are fond of doing.

In the case of the humanitarian aid organised by the UN and the big charities all this should be clear to anyone with a grain of class consciousness, but it's equally true of leftist versions of humanitarian aid such as the Trotskyist-organised "Workers' Aid to Bosnia". Despite their workerist (usually trade unionist) rhetoric and their refusal to give part of their aid to the Croatian Army in return for safe passage, their aid was not going to workers in struggle but to citizens fighting to defend their state. This was particularly true because the heroic Tuzla miners that the Trots are so fond of were almost all in the army on a part-time basis. The aid was largely distributed by the miners' union, which is a good old-fashioned Stalinist state-run union which happens to have switched its allegiance from the Yugoslav state to the Bosnian one.

The only kind of "aid" which doesn't aid the capitalist war machine is that given selectively to proletarians in struggle – to draft dodgers and deserters and not to loyal troops; to strikers and not to cops and scabs.