Oil last week moved into the messy center of events in Yugoslavia. Aerial bombardment from a safe distance didn't stop Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic from persecuting ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. An oil embargo therefore joins the international campaign of inconvenience marshaled against him.
The careful destruction of air defenses, highways and bridges, oil refineries and pipelines, propaganda networks, and an office in Belgrade somehow didn't teach Milosevic the lesson that the world wishes he would learn. Maybe black-market prices for military diesel will.
Eventually, accumulated devastation will bring Milosevic to heel. The supreme question is, as it has been since air strikes began on Mar. 24, how many innocent people must suffer or die in the meantime?
Time and leaksThe evident answer is more, many more. Embargoes take time to work.
This one began to take shape when the European Union agreed, among other things, to ban oil exports to Yugoslavia. The U.S. State Department promptly announced plans to prohibit all exports to Serbia. NATO pieced together a sea blockade. And Romania and Bulgaria said they would block oil deliveries to Serbia through their territory.
Embargoes not only take time to work but also tend to develop leaks. This one began with several suspected or potential holes.
The EU move was reported to have received grudging support from Italy and Greece. Questions arose in Europe-and were sternly refuted in Washington, D.C.-about the legal basis for and resolve of the U.S. action. NATO members initially had conflicting interpretations over how far to take their visit-and-search program for ships bound for the port of Bar in Montenegro, the Yugoslav federation member through which seaborne oil passes en route to Serbia.
Meanwhile, illicit trade in gasoline and diesel fuel, common when the United Nations isolated Yugoslavia during the Bos- nian war in 1992, revived along Yugoslavia's border with Romania. Russia promised to ignore the new embargo against the Milosevic regime, leaving NATO members no good way to respond.
To whatever degree it cuts fuel supplies to Milosevic, of course, the embargo imposes an extra crisis to manage while his military and economic infrastructures literally crumble. But more important than the compliance factor, is the broadening that the embargo represents in NATO's assault. Embargoes don't work with the precision of, say, a laser-guided bomb.
The assault can no longer be called surgical. The genial distinctions that heralded its start have given way to Milosevic's intransigence. "We have no quarrel with the people of Yugoslavia," declared NATO Sec. Gen. Javier Solana the day after air strikes began. There's certainly a quarrel now. Deprivation from the oil embargo will fall on the Yugoslav president and his military absolutely last.
Familiar roleThis role as an implement of political pressure is a regrettable but familiar one for petroleum. It delivers a poignant reminder to anyone who needs it about the fuel's importance. Indeed, without oil Milosevic can't last. But he can kill and displace many more Kosovar Albanians before his petroleum supplies deplete. His Serbian followers now must suffer in a new way. And the promised boarding of Russian tankers by NATO blockade enforcers creates new regional peril.
It's a nasty turn of events that petroleum finds itself in the middle of. NATO is starving Serbs, waiting out further abomination in Kosovo, and facing possible expansion of the conflict because it charged into battle assuring the enemy of what it wouldn't do-deploy ground forces. Nothing associated with the ensuing fiasco-including, now, oil-can benefit from the experience unless it makes world leaders give up their quaint and dangerous belief in the tidy little war in which nobody gets hurt.
Copyright 1999 Oil & Gas Journal. All Rights Reserved.