British Serbs ask: who speaks for us?

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FOR SIX years Misha Gavrilovic has been the hard face and uncompromising voice of Britain's Serbian community. For his unflagging support for Belgrade, and the regime of President Slobodan Milosevic - no matter how bloody the latest atrocity - he is regarded as the man who defends the indefensible.

Mr Gavrilovic is still popping up on television and radio to defend Belgrade's stance on Kosovo, or the violence of the Serbian police and army, usually on the grounds that their enemies are just as bad.

But now it is hard to say who Mr Gavrilovic represents. A bitter split within the British Serb community over support for President Milosevic has shattered the illusion that British Serbs talk with one voice, and that that voice is Misha Gavrilovic's.

"Gavrilovic no longer speaks for us," says Rastko Marcetic, chairman of the Serbian Information Centre, which Mr Gavrilovic helped set up in London in 1991 to promote the Serbian point of view about the conflict in former Yugoslavia.

Not everyone thinks Mr Gavrilovic did much for the national image. "He resigned because he did not agree with our decision to send a letter of support to students protesting in Belgrade against Milosevic," says Mr Marcetic.

"I like Misha, but he is too pro-Milosevic and too close to the Yugoslav embassy." How can anyone be pro-Milosevic, he asks, when the old Yugoslavia has fallen "to its lowest possible level of historical development" and the shrunken republic has degenerated into corruption and is wracked by crime. "Everyone who visits says how depressing it is."

Mr Marcetic denies Mr Gavrilovic's estrangement marks a change in the emigre political line. Keen to present a united face for the beleaguered Serb community, he insists no one was seduced - even initially - by Milosevic's nationalist rantings; that everyone realised that he was the same old Tito-era communist disguised in nationalist dress. So why was Mr Gavrilovic allowed to be the voice of the community for so long?

There is little doubt that a battle for emigre hearts and minds is under way. At public meetings Mr Gavrilovic regularly clashes with Avram Balabanovic, a liberal Serb who undermined his powerbase when he joined the information centre. The two men come from different emigre waves. Mr Gavrilovic fled Belgrade and Josip Tito's communists with his diplomat father after the Second World War, while Mr Balabanovic, now the managing director of an engineering company, left Yugoslavia for Britain in 1974, after Tito relaxed border controls.

Mr Gavrilovic, who settled initially in Scotland , has spent all his adult life here. A graduate of Glasgow University, he meets every allegation of Serbian atrocities with counter-claims. He soothes and flatters his community, discouraging self-analysis and promoting blind patriotism. Blame for the Balkans disaster is laid at everyone else's door.

Mr Balabanovic, meanwhile, irritates his own. While Mr Gavrilovic claims there is a worldwide media conspiracy against the Serbs, Mr Balabanovic urges emigres to consider the way Milosevic's dictatorship brainwashes their countrymen. He rails against the muzzling of the Belgrade media and accuses emigres of schizophrenia in not liking Milosevic and yet rallying to him everytime the nationalist card is played.

"Mr Gavrilovic represents the escapist view that the mess is not our fault and the whole thing is an international conspiracy," says Mr Balabanovic. "It's a cop-out."

Mr Gavrilovic insists he is still the community's authentic voice. He questions why the centre is interfering in Serbia's internal politics instead of confining itself to correcting media misinformation: "It's none of our business to challenge Milosevic."

Interviewing Mr Gavrilovic is exhausting. There is never a straight-forward answer; every question is forced through a linguistic mill. He insists he is neither pro- or anti-Milosevic and denies he speaks for president or regime. Yet he argues that Serb emigres who "throw mud at Milosevic are fighting their own people".

Mr Balabanovic says that while Mr Gavrilovic has lost power in the information centre, his blind patriotism is still what most British Serbs want to hear. But it is as well to remember when the familiar old face comes on the screen that Mr Gavrilovic is no longer an official spokesman. He does not speak for every Serb.

Tony Blair on Kosovo, page 28