Serb democrats woo British support

They came, they met the minister, and they went home again. With that, the troika of Serbian opposition leaders could feel more or less satisfied.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, gave little concrete support during the Serbs' two-day trip to the United Kingdom. But the very fact that the British government had invited the three to London represented progress.

Until a few months ago, Britain was still bizarrely insisting that Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, was "a partner for peace" in the Balkans. That has changed. In recent weeks, Serbian opposition leaders have been invited to meet the foreign ministers of Italy, France and Germany. Now it is Britain's turn. As Mr Rifkind said: "The crucial requirement is that Serbia should be able to enjoy the same political freedoms, the same human rights, and the same liberty as the rest of Europe is now able to enjoy."

The troika remains a motley group - Vuk Draskovic, with his prophet's beard and declared support for restoring the monarchy; Zoran Djindjic, now suavely Western despite his past declarations of solidarity with Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serbs; and the diminutive Vesna Pesic, whose opposition to nationalism has remained unswerving. They and their coalition Zajedno (Together) represent the different aspects of the opposition to Mr Milosevic.

As with other broad-based opposition movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe in recent years, differences between the three may prove to be less important, for the moment at least, than a shared understanding of the need to move Serbia out of the authoritarian rut in which it is now stuck. Mr Djindjic, the newly appointed mayor of Belgrade, following the regime's grudging acceptance of the opposition's electoral victory last November - is confident that Mr Milosevic will be out of office "by the end of the year".

In Mr Djindjic's view, the street protests have now taken on a life of their own: "I'm sure we'll see more demonstrations this summer - not organised by ourselves."

Ms Pesic argued that external pressure, followed by external aid when the democrats are in a stronger position, are crucial. She was critical of the recent cosy relationship between leading British players - including the former foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, who has played an advisory business role - and the Serbian government.

"Milosevic can't do things in secret with Mr Hurd or anybody else - this must be discussed," she said. Mr Milosevic was "working his own business interests - and we have to stop that".

Mr Djindjic said: "It's extremely important for us that other governments see Milosevic as an obstacle to democratisation ... We must convince governments that free media are an essential precondition for the electoral process."

Many in the opposition fear that the financial pressure which Mr Milosevic is still able to exert on the city council in Belgrade and in other cities will mean that the opposition's power will remain something of a mirage, even when election victories have been recognised. But Ms Pesic argued that even the half-victories have been important in forcing Mr Milosevic on to the defensive.

A meeting was requested with Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary. But he had had "a very bad week", and did not have time. There was a meeting with Clare Short, Labour's spokeswoman on overseas development, instead.