Skip to main content
September 12, 1998
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 362
INTERVIEW: Milan Panic

I Helped the Serbian Government

by Roksanda Nincic

Milan Panic is probably the most colorful figure on the Serbian political scene.  Mostly known to the public from newspaper columns such as “successful Serbs abroad”, he assumed the position of Premier of the Federal Government — at Dobrica Cosic’s suggestion — in 1992.  He was received by a veritable euphoria among the state media as a rich, capable man who will solve all our problems.  He offered an unpleasant surprise to those who brought and glorified him: at the peak of the fighting in the Bosnian war, amid the political hysteria in Serbia, he publicly stated that Serbs have no reason to hate Muslims; he was the only Serb to embrace Ibrahim Rugova; the first to have met with representatives of the Croatian Government after the war in that former Yugoslav republic.  He passed like a tornado through all important world capitals where he was well received and where he presented his idea of peace and progress on the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

In December of 1992 he was the DEPOS (Democratic Movement of Serbia) candidate in the presidential elections in Serbia and — even though he had only one week for his campaign — up to now by far the most successful opponent Slobodan Milosevic had.  Even though he was made fun of as a political clown by politicians who were his allies, he still got one and a half million votes, while the Socialists themselves later admitted that they never rigged an election the way they did the one in which Panic ran.  At the initiative of Seselj’s Radicals he was summarily kicked out of the position of premier, only ten days after those elections — on December 29 of 1992.  At that moment he practically withdrew from the Serbian political scene, even though he came back to Yugoslavia and on several occasions announced his political return, while prior to the parliamentary elections in 1994 there was talk that he would once again attempt to unite the Serbian opposition.  However, only recently he has made the first serious attempt at entering the Serbian political scene within the Alliance for Changes.  One of the first responses by the Government was not to pay Panic, that is to say his company ICN Galenika, the money which they already owe for some time for medication that has been long consumed.  Today Panic speaks in the following terms about this conflict with the state and with politics in Serbia.

VREME: Do you expect that the state will ever pay back their debt to you in the amount of 180 million dollars?

PANIC: First of all, that is the biggest debt that this state owes anyone.  For instance, they owe the Russians 150 million dollars for gasoline.  They have charged for the medication which we have manufactured, but put the money elsewhere — God knows where.  We even gave them a loan, and now our money is not coming back.  In short, a state robbery occurred.  The good news is that they admitted in court that they owe us money.  And I will make good on that loan — whether from this government or some other one.

You are participating in a new attempt at uniting the Serbian opposition within the Alliance for Changes.  What kind of political result do you expect?

The first order of business is a political program.  Some things can be done right away, while some things will take more time.  The first thing to be done is to stop the killing in Kosovo.  There is no moral justification for the death of a single Albanian or Serb.  There is no explanation for why those people are dying.  Terrorism and all those stories?  They told us the same thing about Bosnia.  Young people were dying, losing their legs and arms — and why?  Now we know that it was all for nothing.

It is extremely urgent that we bring Mr. Dragoslav Avramovic to draw up a financial program for stabilization; he proved that he knows how to do that; and then we should forge ties with the IMF and the World Bank.  State and public property must be sold immediately in order for pensions to be paid.  Jugopetrol and the Electrodistribution, which are the only things worth anything, must be privatized.  Then the coming of foreign capital could help out quite a lot.  We must break out of this isolation, but that is not that difficult.  It is only difficult for this group of people which are now in power.  Anyone who is normal will be accepted by the rest of the world.  I have many contacts.  Admittedly, they could have supported me more last time, but in the system, such as it was, I did not stand a chance.  It was sheer robbery, and rigging of elections was quite a normal thing — until the last election, in 1996.

Here the economic motive never played a decisive factor in an election, and not even the general political climate.  At the time of the worst hyperinflation, people voted for Slobodan Milosevic.

When was that?
When was that?
In 1993.

There you are wrong.  Those elections were rigged.  Milosevic never won an election, except once when he paraded for a reformist, a kind of Walencza or a Havel.  Since then, he lost every single election.  Even in the last election, in 1997, the Socialists lost — they got 30 percent of votes.  The people chose the opposition, that is, what they thought to be the opposition — the Serbian Renewal Movement and the Radicals.  That means that the people actually did vote for changes, while the people who head those parties did not do that for which they were chosen.  In fact, they are the problem of the opposition in Serbia, but will disappear from the political scene of their own accord, because no one likes those people who are mixed up with authority.  It is only a matter of time.  And I’m not sure how long Milosevic will be able to create situations in which people will vote for him.  What will he do after Kosovo?  That is why I believe that this time Serbians will again chose those people who stand for changes, especially those people who know how to carry out changes.

The Alliance for Changes also includes many opposition politicians who were compromised.  After everything that happened, do you think that parties gathered under that umbrella will have the credibility to influence public opinion in Serbia?

I think that the credibility of the opposition is a good question, but that it can and must be improved.  You do have Panic and Avramovic who never changed their principled positions.

Mr. Avramovic had already once, and at a crucial moment, withdrawn from opposition politics.

I also withdrew, but that does not mean anything.  In America they used to tell me that a man must look at failures as steps toward success.

People mostly believe that your main role in the Serbian opposition is to ensure channels of communication with the American establishment.  What precisely are your capacities in establishing this communication and what are the concrete possibilities for this?

It is more or less like what people believe.  Facts are facts, everyone knows who I speak to, what I speak about, and what I do.

Recently you organized a meeting between Robert Gellbard and our opposition in the Hague who are now gathered under the umbrella of the Alliance for Changes.  What was the point of this meeting?

Mr. Gellbard called me and asked me whether I am interested in helping changes in Serbia.  My answer is classic — I’m interested.  I am a successful man.  I do not need a political reputation in order to make money, and that is why I have credibility.  My interest is to help, even though many people ask me — why are you doing this, you don’t need that.  Somehow I feel a responsibility toward young people and toward what I began.  Not attempting anything would be like running away while someone is killing your friend.  I can’t do that.  I always said that I’m not leaving Yugoslavia, and what their threats really will not put me off.

And what was the result of the meeting between the opposition and Gellbard?

He saw that there are people who have credibility and who can make changes.

Why exactly did you choose the Hague, probably the least popular city for Serbs at the present moment?

Gellbard chose the Hague, or more precisely Rotterdam, but we could not find a suitable conference room in Rotterdam.  As you know, it’s all quite close.

The semi-secret opposition meetings with unknown agendas and indefinite results in Vienna, Budimpest, and occasionally in Nis have generated much confusion.  What is achieved with meetings abroad or at least outside Belgrade?

Meetings abroad suit Mr. Panic.  If I happen to be in Vienna on business, it’s easier for me to gather that company there, that to come here.  As far as Nis is concerned, I decided to participate in Yugoslav political problems when a group of people, headed by Mrs. Uzinovic — some were professors, some were members of the Democratic Party, along with Mayor Zoran Zivkovic — invited me to Nis.  I asked by friends and associates — who are these people?  They told me that they are honorable people.  I went to Nis, heard them talk, one by one, with the conclusion that they wish me to come back into political life because I’m the only one who can bring us out of this economic crisis.  I was more or less flabbergasted, they began with patriotism and such things for which I have a soft spot.  They said that they will be ready for me when I come back to Nis next time, they said that they will organize and Alliance for Changes Milan Panic.  They said that it’s not a political party, that it’s merely an organization which can be joined by all parties and citizens.  I signed the paper and became the leader of that Alliance.

It is still not clear what exactly is the Alliance for Changes doing?

Why are you so skeptical?  I’m the opposition!  Before I committed to this, people used to bring me opinion polls, both Yugoslav and American, by this organization and that, and to my surprise people think that I can help.

What sort of status do you see for Kosovo?

The moment you ask that, you become part of the problem.  Both you and everyone else here is merely looking at the short-term solution to the problem, while Kosovo should only be resolved from the perspective of EU.  We, just like Slovenia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia must submit a request to becoming part of EU.  Now no one is even willing to open the envelope with our request.  The conditions for Yugoslavia being accepted into EU will be, along with everything else, that human and minority rights be resolved in accordance with EU regulations.  It is no less than is being demanded of Spaniards, the French when the Basque are in question, or of the English when the Irish are in question.  The easy part is taking care of those regulations, and then it becomes less important what status Kosovo will have.

To them it’s very important.

Poor Albanians.  They don’t know what they’re doing, just like the Serb’s don’t know what they’re doing.  I also lectured Rugova when he talked about having the Albanian language at Universities.  I told him — Serbian is faulty, while Albanian is even worse.  In the world, in business, you have to speak English.  Albanian!?  If you were to come to ICN, we would not give you a translator.  Why are you making those young people learn Albanian?  Make they learn English, German — therein lies the future of Kosovo!

Did you convince him?

The main thing is that he listened to me, and do not forget, heard me out.

© Copyright VREME NDA (1991-2001), all rights reserved.