Britain trains new elite for post-Milosevic era

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The Independent Online

British diplomats are training a Yugoslav élite-in-waiting to oversee the country's transformation to a civil society after the Milosevic regime falls.

Senior Serbian figures in professional fields such as the military, law enforcement and academia are being brought to Budapest in neighbouring Hungary to design a blueprint for post-Milosevic Serbia, and prepare for the country's re-integration into Europe.

The New Serbia Forum, an initiative funded by the Foreign Office, focuses on key issues to shape the future Yugoslavia such as instituting civilian control of the military, punishment for those who committed atrocities under President Slobodan Milosevic and reconstruct- ing a stable economy.

Many of the Serb participants held senior posts in Yugoslavia before the country began to implode in the 1991 Croatian war of independence. Their refusal to participate in Mr Milosevic's nationalist drive forced them out of their jobs.

British officials want to prevent a repeat of the post-1989 transitions from Communist dictatorship of eastern Eur-ope's new democracies.

Sir John Birch, former British ambassador to Hungary, said: "In 1989 there was no action plan for a new democratic government and a lot of time was wasted arguing over inconsequential questions such as flags and anthems, instead of coping with the budget deficit or thinking about how to deal with people from the old regime.

"We are not a subversive organisation, talking about how to get rid of the Milosevic regime. We are looking at Serb solutions to Serb problems, with outside assistance, about what Serbia needs to reintegrate."

Forum participants, including Dr Miroslav Hadzic, a former colonel in the Yugoslav army, said they wanted to learn from other ex-communist nations. "It is very important for us to be in touch with modern democratic experts which have experience of issues such as civilian control of the army, in transition countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovenia," said Dr Hadzic, now a research fellow at a Belgrade institute.

The Western policy of isolation and sanctions had supported Mr Milosevic, by strengthening his position, said Dr Hadzic. "The Serbian people have no hope and without hope you cannot do anything. All sanctions should be lifted now and Yugoslavia should be admitted to all international organisations.

"The Serbs are paying the price of 10 years of a bad choice, and it is a high price."

Budapest, capital of Hungary, which borders three states of the former Yugoslavia - Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia - has long been a key meeting place for nationals of the south Slavic nations, now divided into independent states.

Bosko Colak-Antic, a former journalist with Tanjug, the Yugoslav state news agency, said: "We do not have free and open expression, to meet experts and clarify our attitudes and opinions. This [forum] brings together the élite of people who can express their opinions about what should happen after the fall of Milosevic."

Attending the forum is not without risks. Participants are often called in by the police on their return home and questioned. One Serb delegate said Belgrade officers asked him who he met, and what the forum was about, then verbally abused him.

The role of the army and the police in the transition to a post-Milosevic era is a key question. Analysts are not certain the army will support Mr Milosevic; nor can he rely on police.

But many analysts expect the end of the Milosevic regime to be protracted and bloody. Internationally isolated, its domestic support crumbling, riven by factions and threatened by armed organised crime gangs it unleashed during the Bosnian war, the regime is likely to end not with a whimper, but with a Serb Götterdämmerung.

One delegate said: "There is too much at stake for government circles and they have no way out. They will fight until the last drop of our blood."