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Panic the idealist confronts real life

A CYCLING champion who joined Tito's Communist partisans at the age of 14, Milan Panic defected in the 1950s while competing in a tournament in West Germany. He made his way to the United States, where he arrived (so he says) with nothing but a dollars 20 note in his pocket. More than 30 years later, he is the chairman of a Californian drug company valued at dollars 1.5bn (pounds 790,000).

Mr Panic, the 62-year-old Serbian-born American who is the new Prime Minister of Yugoslavia, is the classic immigrant success story. His experience teaches him that American values are best: democracy, individualism, hard work. Indeed, he has so completely absorbed the culture of his adopted country that it would be easy to forget he was born in Belgrade - not least because he no longer speaks Serbian fluently.

Now that he is faced with the task of bringing peace to his homeland, his instinct is to apply the principles that served him so well when he was making his new life in America. As he put it in a television interview: 'I don't know of a better person than a Yugoslav who became an American and who was trained in America to come back and make an attempt to teach these people what the American concept of democracy is.'

The unconscious condescension in that statement reveals that he may have forgotten what real life is like in the Balkans. It is doubtful if men like Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian President, or the cynical warlords of Bosnia have much interest in learning 'the American concept of democracy'. They are engaged in a naked fight for territory and power, and if Mr Panic is to succeed he will need more than faith in dialogue, tolerance and reason.

He may not quite have grasped that. When asked this month how he could end the war when everyone else had failed, he answered: 'I will first start with a friendly, American-style persuasion.'

His most immediate problem is Mr Milosevic. The Serbian leader, to whom the West attaches primary responsibility for the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, does not command the same popularity in Serbia as he did two years ago, but he remains much the most powerful figure in the new Serbian-Montenegrin state that calls itself Yugoslavia.

Through his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), formerly the Communist Party, Mr Milosevic controls the police, the economic bureaucracy and most of the media. Mr Panic has made himself Defence Minister, but Mr Milosevic has contacts, influence and knowledge of the armed forces. He has a real power base in a way that Mr Panic, fresh off the plane from New York (and Washington, Helsinki, Rome, Paris, Madrid and Sarejevo, all of which he has visited since he was appointed three weeks ago), does not.

There are, however, a few encouraging signs for Mr Panic. One is an opinion poll last week which showed support for the SPS at only 23.7 per cent, its lowest level since elections in 1990. Although the SPS may still re-emerge as the largest party after new elections are held in November, there is an unmistakable dissatisfaction in Serbia with the war and the havoc that it has wrought on the economy - inflation at 30,000 per cent, high unemployment, international sanctions against Serbia and a mounting refugee crisis. Mr Panic must try to convert that discontent into support for his government.

If he chooses to take on Mr Milosevic, he may be strengthened by his alliance with Dobrica Cosic, the President of the new Yugoslav state. Mr Cosic is an experienced politician and the public support that he has given Mr Panic means Serbia's politicians, bureaucrats and military officers would be advised to take the new Prime Minister seriously.

Whether he can end the carnage in Bosnia is a different matter. The Serbian fighters who bombard Sarajevo every night and who have expelled many thousands of Muslims from their homes are not susceptible to the gentle art of persuasion. If they lay down their guns, they will do so because superior force has compelled them, or because they are exhausted, or because they have achieved their war objectives.

Of the three possibilities, the last is the most likely, for Bosnia's Serbs (and Croats) are very close to attaining their goals: a carve-up of the republic at the expense of the Muslims. If the Serbs capture the eastern town of Gorazde, the last Muslim stronghold, their domination of about two-thirds of Bosnia will be virtually complete and there would be an incentive to wind down the fighting.

A peace on such terms is, however, unacceptable to the West and it is unlikely that it would cause the sanctions to be lifted. Mr Panic would then face the daunting task of persuading or compelling the Serbs of Bosnia and Croatia to relinquish their gains. Massive resistance is guaranteed.

Mr Panic has appealed for 100 days to achieve peace in the former Yugoslavia. He says he believes that 'the forces of good will prevail over the forces of evil, which have been created by cheap politicians in the power struggle'. His diagnosis is right, but there must be doubts about his chances of success.

(Photographs omitted)