BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Milan Panic, the Serbian-born American millionaire invited here to take over as prime minister this year, has decided to run against the man who had brought him home to shore up his own image, Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, and Mr. Milosevic's ruling ex-communist Socialist Party.
Mr. Panic said his program of reconciliation and economic recovery has been undermined by Mr. Milosevic's "obstructionist policies."
"I'm convinced that we will succeed only if Slobodan Milosevic is replaced," Mr. Panic said .
The only other candidate for the Serbian presidency, Vuk Draskovic, leader of the largest opposition party, announced later yesterday that he would bow out of the Dec. 20 contest and throw his support behind Mr. Panic.
The fight thus boils down to a choice between Mr. Milosevic's commitment to a greater Serbia, even by the bloodiest means, and his one-time protege's desire for a return to peace and coexistence.
When he became prime minister in July, Mr. Panic called for an end to the war in Bosnia, a multinational, multireligious society, freedom of speech and assembly, and the revival of the Yugoslav economy through privatization. He also attempted to grant concessions to Kosovo Albanians, who constitute 90 percent of the population of that province in southern Serbia.
Mr. Panic said his government considers Bosnia-Herzegovina an independent country and a member of the United Nations. He proposed that Bosnia-Herzegovina be turned into a demilitarized zone and that Croatia and Serbia withdraw their heavy weapons from the area.
He also outlined a vision for Yugoslavia, which has now shrunk to two of the former six republics, Serbia and Montenegro. He proposed an economic community of independent states and said the first step in that direction should be the restoration of telephone, transportation and commercial links that were disrupted when Yugoslavia's civil war broke out a year ago.
All of this is anathema to Mr. Milosevic, who has managed to keep real power in his hands. With national television firmly under his control, Mr. Milosevic has managed to tranquilize the rural population, arguing that United Nations sanctions against Serbia will have little effect and that it is the Serbs who are being killed and raped in Bosnia.
Denied access to television, Mr. Panic plans a whirlwind bus campaign through the Serbian heartland.
The 11-hour move was orchestrated by university students, who collected in less than 48 hours more than 40,000 signatures on a petition sponsoring Mr. Panic's candidacy. University students have been in the forefront of repeated public drives against Mr. Milosevic and his policies.
Mr. Panic has no political party, but he is enormously popular. Public opinion polls show him running consistently well ahead of the dour Mr. Milosevic and all other professional politicians.
The self-made millionaire has charm and a legend to match it. He arrived in the United States as a penniless refugee from Belgrade in the late 1950s, later establishing and running California-based ICN Pharmaceuticals, which had sales of $400 million in 1991. Serbs also respond well to his American-style openness. Many see him as the only figure not interested in personal financial gain from politics.
Western diplomats here speculated in July that Mr. Panic's appointment was a clever ploy engineered by Mr. Milosevic to buy time and divert attention from the war in Bosnia. Some described Mr. Panic as a naive man jumping into a snake pit. James A. Baker III, then U.S. secretary of state, told him privately that he would be "eaten alive."
That view apparently was shared by Mr. Milosevic.
But Mr. Panic said from the beginning that he would prove such doubters wrong. He publicly warned Mr. Milosevic to keep out of his way.
Mr. Panic said yesterday that Mr. Milosevic's policies have led to international isolation, crippling U.N. sanctions, skyrocketing inflation and war.