Why the U.S. Has Softened on Serbia

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Finally, some bad news for Slobodan Milosevic that's good news for the Serbs. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced Wednesday that the U.S. would lift sanctions against Yugoslavia if the country holds free and fair elections — even if they result in a Milosevic victory. That's a retreat from the more extreme U.S. position that had insisted sanctions would remain in place until Milosevic is ousted — through elections or not — and brings Washington more into line with the thinking of European NATO members and the Serbian opposition. "Most important," says TIME Washington correspondent Barry Hillenbrand, "the policy shift makes sense; the U.S. hardly wants to be responsible for a humanitarian tragedy in which thousands of people freeze to death because they failed to overthrow Milosevic."

Washington had previously been skeptical of European initiatives, such as the plan to provide heating oil to cities controlled by the opposition, but now appears to have come around to a more subtle approach. "The blanket isolation of Serbia was only ever going to freeze the situation Iraq-style and actually consolidate Milosevic's grip on power," says TIME Central Europe bureau reporter Dejan Anastasijevic. "The new approach gives the opposition much greater leverage — by dangling an end to sanctions — to force a free and fair election. And if the opposition doesn't participate in an election, it'll be a signal that the international community shouldn’t take the poll seriously and shouldn't lift sanctions." Even then, Milosevic isn't simply likely to roll over and give up, says Anastasijevic. "In the end, Milosevic is extremely unlikely to allow an election that he could actually lose, and it's extremely unlikely that he'd win a genuinely free and fair one." So despite Washington's more subtle approach, it's likely to be a cold, hard winter for the Serbians — warmed slightly by the hope that less strident rhetoric will lead to an eventual solution.