Panic campaigns U.S.-style for Serbian presidency He blames rival for genocidal war

December 17, 1992|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE -- "The ad is great -- keep that mouth on, keep it talking, it's fantastic." American voices shout back and forth on the seventh floor of Belgrade's swank Hyatt hotel. Presidential election campaign '92 is on.

The American millionaire who is challenging Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has brought a team from the United States to produce a U.S.-style election campaign. Serbian-born businessman Milan Panic is determined to end the Bosnia war and bring democracy American style.

His campaign headquarters in Belgrade's only international class hotel is a surreal oasis in the midst of nationalistic Balkan chaos and encroaching civil war. The team has produced a slick and sophisticated television ad to put across Mr. Panic's "message for change."

It shows a mouth surrounded by darkness enumerating the promises Mr. Milosevic made to his people when he was elected two years ago. Promises of wealth and democracy. The reality: War, international isolation, economic collapse, inflation of 2,600 percent. Mr. Panic also is imitating Bill Clinton and traveling by road across Serbia to talk directly to people.

Mr. Milosevic acts as if Mr. Panic's challenge is little more than a serious irritant, but behind the scenes he is doing all he can to chain his challenger to the starting block. The main television station, Belgrade Television, is Mr. Milosevic's personal propaganda machine. It refuses to air the ad. Mr. Panic is confined to the smaller Studio B station.

Government officials and factory directors in nationalistic heartland towns are refusing to organize Mr. Panic's visits. He was nearly prevented from running at all when the Milosevic-controlled government voted in a strict residency requirement Nov. 2. It took a week of legal appeals and reappeals this month to remain on the ballot.

Mr. Milosevic's tactics are nothing new to Mr. Panic. Since July he has been Yugoslav prime minister and defense minister -- brought in by Mr. Milosevic as part of a charm offensive to woo the outside world and get United Nations sanctions lifted. He has a general's uniform, though he only wears it at home for fun. Marshal Tito's Mercedes stretch limousine chauffeurs him around. He has met with dozens of world leaders.

But the spunky and eccentric California millionaire has held little more than the trappings of office since he returned to his native Yugoslavia.

Real power has remained with Mr. Milosevic. Mr. Panic found all his efforts to end the Bosnia war and bring democracy were blocked by Mr. Milosevic. He decided the only way to attain real power was to challenge Mr. Milosevic in next Sunday's elections. He feels it may be his lucky day -- Dec. 20 is his 63rd birthday.

But he may not be able to gain the 51 percent of the votes necessary to win the election. Polls indicate he is running well ahead in urban areas. Mr. Milosevic, however, dominates the nationalistic countryside -- and more than 50 percent of Serbs live in settlements of less than 5,000.

The crucial deciding votes may reside in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo, which makes up 20 percent of the total vote. The region's population is 90 percent Albanian, and Mr. Milosevic runs Kosovo as a brutal anti-Albanian police state.

"We are saying to them that they should cast a vote for Mr. Panic -- it need not necessarily be for him, just let it be against Milosevic," said a Panic aide.

Although Mr. Panic has told Albanians he will let them have considerable autonomy, he does not condone separation from Serbia. Albanian nationalist leaders, who secretly want complete independence, may decide to boycott the elections.

Mr. Panic has scared Mr. Milosevic. Insiders say Mr. Milosevic has his own polling team and takes polls very seriously. They are telling him what published polls also indicate: that Mr. Milosevic may fail to gain an overall majority.

He is relying on tested communist methods learned from his communist past (he now calls himself a Socialist) to pull him through. His main strength is the tight grip on the only media that really matters: the single nation-wide TV station, Belgrade

Television.

Its pro-Milosevic propaganda claims U.N. sanctions are hardly affecting Serbia and have only been imposed because of an unjust international conspiracy against which Serbs should unite. The war in Bosnia, it contends, is taking place only because Muslims and Croats are killing and raping Serbs.

It also has carried a veiled message implying that if Mr. Milosevic was ousted from power, civil war would break out in Serbia itself.

The television campaign is engaged in virtually non-stop Panic bashing: calling him everything from an American spy to an enemy selling out the interests of the Serbian people.

Until Mr. Panic stepped into the election ring, the only candidate likely to make a decent showing was Vuk Draskovic, the main opposition leader. But he is distrusted by many ordinary people because of his fuddled ideas and unkempt, Rasputin-like appearance. He bowed out of the race and threw the weight of his Serbian Renewal Party behind Mr. Panic when the prime minister declared his candidacy.

It is the political ineptitude of the opposition parties that persuaded Mr. Panic to run. He had wanted to support an opposition coalition. But the opposition has no experience of democratic politics, and the many parties are more concerned with Belgrade squabbling than with campaigning.

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