Serb-born U.S. citizen becomes Yugoslavia's new prime minister

July 15, 1992|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- A Serbian-born U.S. millionaire yesterday became prime minister of the new rump Yugoslavia, outlining a broad program that sets him on a collision course with the ruling crypto-Communist Party of strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Milan Panic, the 62-year-old chairman of California-based ICN Pharmaceuticals, called for an end to the war in Bosnia; a multinational, multi-religious society; freedom of speech and assembly; and the revival of the Yugoslav economy through privatization.

"I have no political ambitions," he told the federal Parliament, which came to office last month in elections boycotted by all major democratic opposition parties. "I only have the desire to help this country."

He added, "There is no idea worth killing for at the end of the 20th century."

Mr. Panic (pronounced PAHN-ich), who also holds the portfolio of defense minister, called on all sides in the Bosnian war to stop fighting. He said that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be turned into a demilitarized zone, and that Croatia and Serbia should withdraw their heavy weapons. His government will do its part, he said.

He said that he considered Bosnia-Herzegovina an independent country and a member of the United Nations. He said he would fly to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo within days for talks with the Bosnian leaders, and then proceed to Paris, London and Washington.

As Mr. Panic took office in Belgrade, Sarajevo enjoyed one of its quietest days in a week of sometimes heavy fighting.

But Gorazde, 30 miles to the southeast, continued to come under intense attack by armored Serb forces on the offensive in northern and eastern Bosnia, according to accounts reaching Sarajevo.

In London, the Foreign Office said that Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims have agreed to come there today to meet European Community envoy Lord Carrington in a new attempt to end the fighting.

Yesterday, Mr. Panic said that Yugoslavia -- which comprises only two of its former six republics, Serbia and Montenegro -- should restore telephone, transport and commercial links with Croatia and Slovenia.

Communications were disrupted when Yugoslavia's civil war broke out after those two states declared independence a year ago. Mr. Panic added that he foresees the possibility of an "economic union" with the new independent states.

In the debate that followed his speech, lawmakers attacked virtually all aspects of Mr. Panic's program. The Parliament is dominated by Mr. Milosevic, who received a standing ovation when his presence in the Parliament was announced,

But despite criticism, Mr. Panic's nomination was approved by both chambers. The vote was 99-33 in one, 35-3 in the other.

Western diplomats here speculated that Mr. Panic's appointment was a clever ploy engineered by Mr. Milosevic, the Serbian president, to buy time and divert attention from the Bosnian war, which has aroused world condemnation against Serbian forces. there. One diplomat described Mr. Panic as a naive person jumping into a snake pit.

But Mr. Panic, who fled from Yugoslavia to America in 1956, wants to prove his doubters wrong. He has described himself as "the mouse who may just be able to do something." He has publicly warned Mr. Milosevic to keep out of his way. The decision to be his own defense minister was interpreted by observers as an effort to gain control of the military.

The U.S. government has given Mr. Panic a 30-day waiver from the rule prohibiting U.S. citizens from holding office in foreign governments.

Mr. Panic also has unleashed one of his most potent weapons by announcing that elections at all levels will be held "within a few months."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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