Events

Blue Helmets and Black Markets: The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo

October 02, 2008 // 12:00pm1:00pm

Blue Helmets and Black Markets:
The Business of Survival in the Siege of Sarajevo
October 2, 2008

Staff-prepared summary of the seminar with Peter Andreas, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies, Brown University

Based on his recent book, Peter Andreas presented his analysis of the longest siege in recent history and the role of the international community, both in increasing its longevity and finally bringing the siege to an end. Andreas's unit of analysis is the city of Sarajevo, since it was the interface between the international community and the locals. He sought to understand war economics, international humanitarian intervention and the media's impact on the siege. Basing his findings on personal accounts and extensive interviews, Andreas found that the siege's longevity was tied to the mutually-reinforcing relationship between the criminal elements (which both saved the city and looted its wealth) and the international community (which both enabled the siege to continue and eventually ended it).
The longevity of the siege, which lasted from 1992 to 1995, defies conventional explanations. From a realist perspective, the large Serb army should have quickly defeated the city, given its seemingly inadequate defenses. Moreover, given the extensive media attention, from a liberal/humanitarian perspective, international pressure should have been sufficient to end the impasse. Andreas's research indicates that in the first weeks of the siege, in the absence of an organized army, Sarajevo's multi-ethnic criminal underground kept the city from falling, through sheer chutzpah, but also by using its networks to obtain the necessary provisions and guns. These criminals soon became war heroes, and won the support of the citizens. When the United Nations peacekeeping mission became formally involved to provide aid and provisions, it also brought an informal component that fueled the city. Ukrainian and French soldiers served multiple roles as gate keepers and black market facilitators. Sarajevo residents who served the UN—so-called "blue-card" holders—exploited their access to the internationals, primarily by smuggling money. Andreas is careful not to condemn the informal structures supported by the UN, the international press and NGOs who worked in the city: while these activities helped fuel the black market, they also saved lives and helped people survive.
One example of how the internationals helped to sustain the black market was by denying the existence of an underground tunnel, which was built in the style of a mine shaft below the airport tarmac. The tunnel served as a life line that enabled Sarajevo's citizens to smuggle goods, hard currency and arms to support the city's defenses, as well as traffic wounded soldiers and refugees. Yet, these heroes were also criminals who profited from trading with the enemy and prolonging the war with their black market connections. The UN's complicity with the black market has had a double edge: while it helped to defend the city, it criminalized social capital. This criminalized political elite, which continues to rule in the post-war period, has led to political and economic stagnation.

Martin Sletzinger, Director, East European Studies, 202-691-4000

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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