Belgrade plumps for a premier of little importance: Leonard Doyle in New York wonders about the the emigre millionaire who claims he will tame Milosevic

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The Independent Online
LIKE so many East Europeans who have made the big time in the United States, Milan Panic, who has been named prime minister of what remains of the Yugoslav federation, is a 'can-do' operator and free-enterprise enthusiast. What he can do for his native country remains to be seen.

The trouble with Mr Panic is that virtually all the diplomats or politicians who have met him have little good to say about him.

They are also suspicious about Belgrade's motives for appointing an American citizen as prime minister at a time when Nato and the Western European Union are being slowly sucked into a possible military conflict over Bosnia. Mr Panic has promised to end the war in Bosnia, bring free enterprise to Serbia, hold free elections and put the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, in his place, but the main objective seems to be to head off any direct military involvement aimed at halting Serbia's military onslaught in Bosnia.

The most favourable assessment of Mr Panic's appointment, gleaned from a diplomat involved in the Yugoslav peace talks, is that 'the situation is so bad and confused in the Balkans that what seems like a bizarre move may have some positive effect'.

Since he announced his pending appointment at a Washington press conference last month, Mr Panic has delivered little in the way of substance and his encounters with the media have had a tendency to veer out of control.

So far he has elicited only derision from diplomats and politicians who have met him. At the weekend the US Secretary of State, James Baker, said that, while Mr Panic may know a lot about business, he knew very little about politics.

Mr Panic has been granted a 30- day waiver in which to hold on to his US citizenship, because Americans cannot hold public office abroad, but Mr Baker has said that 'no special deal of arrangement' has been made.

Mr Panic may face more serious problems in US courts on his return, however, for allegedly defaulting on a dollars 8.4m ( pounds 4.3m) loan and for failing to pay dollars 37,300 in property taxes. He has had other entanglements with the US government and last year his company, ICN Pharmaceuticals, paid dollars 60,000 in fines for claiming that its Virazole anti-viral drug could be used to treat Aids.

Despite his nave and rough- hewn public image, Mr Panic is extremely close to the power-centres in Washington. He counts among his close friends the Assistant Secretary of State, Lawrence Eagleburger, and John Scanlan, a former US ambassador to Belgrade who runs the European division of ICN. Mr Eagleburger is a member of the board of the company, which has seen its share-price rise from dollars 17 to dollars 33 on the New York Stock Exchange over the past year.

Mr Panic, 62, speaks with an American drawl heavily overlaid with a Yugoslav accent despite his 36 years in the country.

He arrived in the US as a defector in 1956, when he was a member of the Yugoslav national cycling team. And, like all rags-to-riches immigrants, he remembers exactly how much he had in his pocket - a dollars 20 note - when he passed through immigration.