Yugoslavia's Panic Vows Peace By Any Means Necessary
But many doubt new president can curb Serb nationalists
BELGRADE — MILAN PANIC, the Belgrade-born United States businessman chosen as prime minister of rump Yugoslavia, says he will use emergency powers and the Army if necessary to return the country from war and tyranny to peace and the international fold.
"I will do everything and anything to accomplish this," vowed the self-made millionaire in an interview Aug. 3 in the White Palace, a former royal residence that now serves as Yugoslav Army staff headquarters.
"Tomorrow I can go to the [communist-controlled] Congress and declare a national crisis if necessary to promote democracy. I will dismiss the Congress if need be in the name of freedom, democratization, and the removal of [United Nations economic] sanctions," he asserted.
"The Army is under me. Police, Army, everything," he continued in his fluent, but heavily accented English. "I am also defense secretary. And, most important, I have tremendous popular support."
Mr. Panic may well have need of all of those resources, for his ambitious agenda means almost certain conflict with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the communist strongman whose aggressive nationalism has led the republic into totalitarianism, war, economic chaos, and international isolation.
For that reason, many governments and Yugoslav analysts remain highly skeptical of the prospects of the ebullient Serbian emigre who founded the California-based, multinational ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc. after arriving in the US with $20 in 1956.
Some go further, suggesting that Panic is merely an elaborate hoax foisted by Mr. Milosevic to convince the UN Security Council to end sanctions and gain recognition of rump Yugoslavia as the legitimate successor of its defunct namesake.
After all, they say, it was Milosevic who first touted Panic for prime minister. And he was nominated by Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic, an author and former communist who fanned the Serbian nationalism that brought Milosevic to power and led to the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.
Panic vehemently rejected such conjecture, at first dismissing Milosevic with an eye-twinkling "Who is he?"
But his voice grew serious as he acknowledged prospects of a showdown, saying: "This was a stroke through the heart, [my] taking the Defense Ministry. This was the beginning of the end."
"I have no tolerance for the old style. The old Yugoslavia has stopped," he continued. "My responsibility to the Yugoslav people is do what I can do best: bring democracy here, put peace together, and start the economic recovery."
Since taking office July 14 as the first prime minister of the truncated Yugoslav federation forged by Serbia and Montenegro, Panic has set out a sweeping vision for change. His primary goal, he said, is to end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and gain the lifting of United Nations economic sanctions imposed on Serbia and Montenegro for underwriting the Serbian drive in former Yugoslav republics.
To that end, he pledges to broker talks between ethnic leaders, prevent military supplies from reaching Serbian forces from Serbia, and recognize the independence of Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as that of Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia.
But while Panic calls for an end to the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the battles continue and Milosevic is still providing economic and political succor to Serbian forces.
Even as Panic declares his intention to bring free enterprise to Serbia, the republic's communist-dominated Assembly has handed Milosevic sweeping powers to regulate every facet of the republic's catastrophe-ridden economy.
Where Panic promises freedom of the press and expression, Milosevic has tried to seize direct control of the republic's largest and most influential newspaper and has obtained legislation imposing severe limits on demonstrations and awarding new powers to the police.
Though Panic asserts that the Serbian leader has assured him he would not seek reelection in proposed November elections, Milosevic has already begun campaigning in the rural hinterlands where he derives the bulk of his support.
While Panic vows to go after the ultra-nationalist paramilitary groups nurtured by the Serbian regime, free military training is held every night in Belgrade's largest soccer stadium, less than a mile from Milosevic's front door.
And, while Panic is a newcomer to the labyrinths of predatory Balkan politics, Milosevic has deftly maneuvered through countless crises and maintains a lock on power through his majorities in the Serbian and federal legislatures.
Panic says he is undaunted by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
"One man can do a lot, especially if he is for peace, if he is determined," he says. "And if he works with a small group of intelligent, determined people, he can do miracles."