YUGOSLAV Prime Minister Milan Panic is publicly taking on Serbia's strongman President Slobodan Milosevic in a fight for power.
When he assumed office last July, Mr. Panic - a wealthy Serbia-born American businessman - was dismissed as a political lightweight. He is now considered a more serious figure. One Western diplomat called him "Yugoslavia's last hope."
More than 30 opposition parties - most of which have gathered into an umbrella organization known as the Democratic Movement of Serbia (DEPOS) - are supporting Panic's efforts to ensure that next month's elections to the Yugoslav and Serb parliaments are free and fair.
"Cooperation with Panic is the only way the process of democratization can take place," says a DEPOS spokesman.
"Nobody else can lead us out of this situation," says a leading DEPOS member who is a university English professor. "I don't really know if he can. But if we don't support him there is no chance at all."
It is unclear how Panic plans to accomplish free and fair elections. Democratization means opposing most Milosevic policies. Western diplomats and some Serbs say it will be impossible unless Panic seizes pro-Milosevic Belgrade television.
Panic returned to Belgrade from New York Sept. 30 after failing to prevent Yugoslavia's expulsion from the United Nations. He did win sympathy from several countries to have the remainder of Yugoslavia join as a new country in December. And he won US backing for a plan to push for UN agreement to allow Yugoslavia to import some oil from China for hospitals, schools, and other essential services.
"When we were in the United States before, all doors were closed to him," one Panic aide says. "This time, everyone wanted to meet him - he had a tremendous reception on Capitol Hill." Panic also had long, high-level meetings with all five members of the UN Security Council.
Before Panic left the United States, he was given a public show of support by Acting US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. The US charge d'affaires was at Belgrade airport to see Panic off on his trip to New York and to greet him on his return last month. Panic aides were buoyed by the international change in attitude toward their boss. Mr. Eagleburger told Panic that Milosevic's continuation in power was one of the main obstacles to the removal of UN sanctions.
In his absence, however, Belgrade television and other media controlled by Mr. Milosevic have mounted attacks accusing Panic of responsibility for a range of sins - from failing to get UN sanctions lifted to ignoring Serbian history in his approach to ending the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Panic aides say a domestic battle is already shaping up.
Right-wing nationalist Vojislav Seselj, considered Milosevic's voice, led attacks on Panic in the Serbian parliament. "He promised that sanctions would be reduced. But what he said was false. He is nothing more than a traitor," Mr. Seselj says.
When asked how he intended to respond to the attacks, Panic said simply, "God help them, for they know not what they do."
THERE are even signs that Milosevic may try to halt elections in Serbia: the Serb parliament is calling for a referendum on whether to hold elections or not.
Diplomats in Belgrade say Milosevic may need Panic too badly to attempt to oust him in a vote of no-confidence even though Milosevic could easily push one through in the Yugoslav parliament.
That body is packed with Milosevic supporters, since opposition parties did not take part in elections they considered unfree and unfair - largely because they were given almost no air time on Milosevic-controlled Belgrade television which is the main source of people's news and views in Serbia.
Panic is immensely popular in Serbia. He is seen by many as a potential miracle cure for UN sanctions, which are fast devastating the economy. Panic has warned that he should not be seen as a miracle.
Milosevic is aware that without Panic, no hope remains for Serbia. UN sanctions have brought the country to its knees.
Economically Serbia is already in desperate straits as UN sanctions bite. Most people worry the winter will be a punishing time of shortages and little or no heat. Unemployment is soaring as factories close down because of lack of fuel, raw materials, and export markets. Statistics published last week estimated that only one person in 22 now has a job.
In a major blow to Milosevic, leaders of Montenegro - which together with Serbia makes up the rump Yugoslavia - have put their weight behind Panic. So has Yugoslav President Dobrica Cosic, a writer who carries the intellectual vote.
In the coming weeks Serbia "could either plunge into the Dark Ages or begin emerging from the cave," one diplomat here says. It all depends on the outcome of the struggle between Panic and Milosevic.