Part I
The Yugoslavian problem and the role of the West 1991-1994

Chapter 8
Safe Areas as spin-offs from humanitarian action, November – December 1992

6. Panic and the presidential elections in Serbia: a lost chance for the West?

‘If Europe is unable to distinguish between those Bosnian and Serbian leaders who pursue their interests by force of arms and those of us who are seeking to direct Yugoslavia on the path of peace and democracy, then we are all doomed to endless conflict and tragedy in the Balkans.’ [1]

While Kooijmans was getting ready for a peaceful take-over of office from his predecessor Van den Broek in the Netherlands, a fierce struggle for power was being waged in Serbia. Elections were due to be held on 20 December 1992 for the Presidency of Serbia, the federal parliament and the parliaments of Serbia and Montenegro. [2]

Vance and Owen had hoped that Cosic would challenge Milosevic, but Cosic had stated at the end of October that he would not run as initially announced. The reason for this was his poor health. Cosic, who had already undergone three operations in previous years, had recently been operated on again, this time for a prostate complaint. [3] In addition, Cosic’s advisors told him that there was little point in contesting the presidency of Serbia. Even if he did win the election, the expectation was that Milosevic would get himself elected President of Yugoslavia the very next day by the Parliament (which he more or less had in his pocket), thus reversing both the roles and the balance of power. [4] Milosevic had already told Panic once, when the latter had expressed his surprise that the Serbian leader had agreed to the nomination of Cosic as President of Yugoslavia, that it didn’t matter was position he, Milosevic, actually occupied, since he was to the Serbs what Ayatollah Khomeini was to the Iranians. [5]

Owen saw Federal Premier Milan Panic as the best alternative to Cosic, but considered that, as an outsider in Serbia, he would have no chance in the elections in a straight fight against Milosevic. [6] After the London summit, Panic had continued to work to promote agreement between the authorities in Belgrade and other parts of the former Yugoslavia. [7] In mid-October, for example, he had made an (abortive) attempt to arrange talks with the Albanian leaders in Kosovo. In an address to the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Security Committee in November 1992, Panic said that if he managed to introduce democracy in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Hercegovina ‘will not disappear. For me, it is another country, and we will recognize it.’ [8]

Although there had long been speculation that Panic might stand as a candidate for the presidency of Serbia, it was not until 30 November – only three weeks before the date of the elections - that he officially put his name forward, thus formally challenging Milosevic. That was rather late. Moreover, Panic only received open support from President Cosic at the eleventh hour. [9] After his new operation, Cosic was hardly able to support Panic’s campaign. Since Cosic’s illness and operation had been declared state secret, the public at large could easily interpret his absence during Panic’s election meetings as a lack of support for Panic. [10] It may be mentioned by the way that sources from Panic’s camp did inform the EC missions about the severity of Cosic’s medical condition, which might even mean an end to his political career. [11] Moreover, Cosic seemed to have got cold feet. His argument that as President of Yugoslavia he should be strictly impartial hardly rings true against the background of the political relations prevailing in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the time. [12]

Panic promised both the Serbian voters and the international community that he would bring peace to the region if he won the elections. However, Western governments doubted whether he had much real power: after all, he had no party organization behind him, and depended on the support of the opposition. An important reason for the lack of confidence in the West about Panic’s chances of electoral success was that Milosevic had once again shown clearly on 19 October that when it came to a struggle between himself on the one hand and Cosic and Panic on the other, he had the real power.

On that evening, the Serbian police occupied the Federal police headquarters. This building housed a huge British-made monitoring centre financed in 1990 by all the republics, with wire-tapping facilities making it possible to listen in to forty thousand telephone calls at the same time. It also contained files with details of the organization of paramilitary units and other information Milosevic did not want to fall into the hands of third parties. [13] The occupation took place while Cosic and Panic were in Geneva for talks hosted by Owen and Vance. When they complained about the affair to Milosevic on their return, he first pretended to know nothing about it and then treated it as a property question rather than as a veiled coup. [14]

Cosic and Panic understood that normally speaking, they could not disregard this threat of usurpation. Part of the army would actually have been prepared to intervene and stage a counter-coup, but Cosic and Panic would not have dared to go so far at a moment when Serbs were at war. [15] According to Cosic himself, he did visit the General Staff to test their feelings on the matter, but when he asked them for their opinion no one replied. This did not give him the confidence he needed to reverse the action of the Serbian police. [16] Milosevic had played for high stakes, and had won. This made it perfectly clear how the balance of power in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia lay.

Panic had already asked the West to relax the sanctions before he declared his candidature, as a sign that the population of Serbia and Montenegro could expect better times ahead if they voted for him instead for Milosevic. He did this e.g. in an emotional address to the European Parliament in early November. [17] The Western governments hesitated to support Panic, however, [18] and announced shortly after his departure from Brussels that the sanctions against Serbia would be tightened. [19]

Owen, on the other hand, had initially thought that Panic should be given a chance. [20] He had urged in early October that the sanctions should be relaxed in order to improve the position of Cosic and Panic relative to Milosevic. This move did not appeal to the EC ministers at all, however, as long as the situation in Bosnia showed no marked improvement. British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd even felt obliged to gloss over Lord Owen’s ‘can-do’ optimism by sketching Owen to his colleagues as ‘an active man of independent spirit, who feels the need to put forward controversial ideas from time to time’. [21] Within the EC, the governments of France, Italy and Spain supported the idea of relaxing the sanctions for humanitarian purposes, e.g. delivering fuel oil for heating, in order to strengthen the position of Cosic and Panic. Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands in particular were against the idea, however.

While Van den Broek had been in New York to attend the UN General Assembly, he had asked Izetbegovic on 22 September what he thought of Panic. The Bosnian President had replied that he was convinced that Panic’s intentions were good, but that he did not have much power. According to Izetbegovic, the existing sanctions should be maintained because of the links between the Yugoslav army and the VRS. Van den Broek agreed. He believed that relaxing the sanctions would only strengthen the position of Milosevic and Karadzic. [22] Another important consideration was his conviction that Cosic and Milosevic largely shared the same views. It appeared from remarks that Cosic had made during a visit to Rome on 26 October that he would like to see Bosnia-Hercegovina divided into three parts; he also warned against the risks of Muslim fundamentalism in the region. [23] According to Dutch diplomacy, it did not matter so much which particular person was in power at a given time: ‘The Serbs have to learn that their behaviour is unacceptable.’ This meant that the sanctions should not be relaxed; in fact, the possibility of tightening them should be investigated. [24] On 16 November the Security Council passed resolution 787, authorizing a tightening of the trade embargo against Serbia and Montenegro that had been instituted in May. This resolution gave NATO and the WEU powers to intercept, search and send back shipping. It also prohibited the transit of a wide range of goods, including oil and petroleum products.

When Panic invited the diplomats present in Belgrade to the celebration of the first hundred days of his government, to be held on 24 October, the reaction of the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs was also very negative. According to Foreign Affairs, there was nothing to celebrate and all that Panic and his associates wanted was recognition of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The British government, which had initially wanted to promote the presence of the European partners as a gesture of support for Panic in his confrontation with Milosevic, finally decided to advise EC member states to disregard the invitation. [25] As a result, the EC missions did not attend the celebrations, which displeased Panic. [26]

However, signals arriving from Yugoslavia in October and later indicated that Panic did definitely have a chance against Milosevic. For example, an opinion poll commissioned by the publication Borba indicated that sixty percent of the inhabitants of Belgrade supported Panic while only 22 percent intended to vote for Milosevic. [27] But even this sign of a possible change in what was left of Yugoslavia was not enough to persuade Western governments to adopt a more positive attitude to Panic, who asked in vain for at least a temporary, provisional lifting of the sanctions. [28] The decisive point was that the American government believed that Milosevic would not accept a defeat at the polls by Panic, if this were to happen. Moreover, Washington was unsure whether the Yugoslav army would obey Panic’s orders if he were to win the election. [29]

Tension increased as the election date approached. Rumours circulated in Belgrade that the United States and Russia would lift the sanctions if Panic won the election, but would tighten them if Milosevic was re-elected. [30] The West gave no concrete promise to this effect, however, though Owen and Vance did urge the population of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to vote for a policy of peace, and not for one of war. [31] And the governments of the United States and Russia issued a joint statement in which it was said that the Serbian people had the choice between returning to the community of nations and remaining an internationally isolated pariah, with all the economic consequences that entailed. [32]

Four days before the elections, on 16 December, US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger stated during a meeting of the Follow-Up Committee of the Conference on former Yugoslavia that Milosevic, the rabid nationalist Seselj and Karadzic should be put on trial for war crimes: ‘They need, especially, to understand that a second Nuremberg awaits the practitioners of ethnic cleansing.’ Eagleburger also mentioned war crimes committed by other parties in the Bosnian conflict, e.g. the Bosnian Muslim-Croat camp Celebici, where Serbs were killed in August 1992, and the massacre of sixty Serbian soldiers and civilians in September 1992 in Kamenica (near Srebrenica), for which Bosnian Muslims were responsible. [33]

Seselj later stated that this attack by Eagleburger was the secret of his electoral success. According to Seselj, such remarks from one of the leaders of the wicked outside world actually encouraged many Serbs to vote for him. Even democrats in Belgrade believed that these remarks had only helped Milosevic and Seselj to win votes. Eagleburger himself was unapologetic about the possible adverse side-effects of his statements. He defended himself by saying that it was the last opportunity the administration of President Bush, which had been defeated in the November elections, had to speak out on this issue in front of a forum of this kind. Further, he did not believe that his statements had influenced the result of the election, ‘and I frankly don’t give a damn if it did because I think it was important to do and I hope we’ll do some more of it.’ [34]

Svetozar Stojanovic, Cosic’s foreign affairs advisor, was convinced that a remark of this kind was based on Western calculation. He saw evidence for this idea e.g. in the fact that the American government turned down a proposal from Cosic in the autumn of 1992. This proposal had been contained in a secret message conveyed to Washington at Cosic’s request by Scanlan, one of Panic’s advisors and former American ambassador in Belgrade, in which the Yugoslav President asked for American support in exchange for improvement of Yugoslav relations with the US. [35] According to Stojanovic, the rejection of this proposal could be explained on the basis of the consideration that, in the view of himself and Cosic, the West preferred to deal with the opportunist Milosevic, who only exploited the Serbian question for his personal ends and changed his standpoint from day to day, than with a confirmed nationalist like Cosic. Unlike the case with Cosic, the West could put Milosevic under pressure regularly by threatening to put him on trial, as Western diplomats had subsequently confirmed to Stojanovic. [36]

Even without such a calculation on the part of the Western powers, Panic’s election campaign was experiencing enough difficulties. He had to go the Constitutional Court twice after announcing his candidature, because the Electoral Commission initially declared his candidature invalid on the grounds that he had not been resident in Serbia for a full year before the elections. During his very short electoral campaign, Panic did not manage to convince the Kosovo Albanians that a vote for him would mean a major change in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The Albanians decided that the elections had nothing to do with them, and decided to boycott them. A further big handicap for Panic during the election campaign was Milosevic’s firm grasp of the media; for example, the state television was under Serbian, not Federal, control. Nevertheless, an opinion poll carried out a week before the election still gave Panic a six percent lead on Milosevic. [37]

What many people who hoped for changed failed to observe, however, was that while Panic had a lot of support in Belgrade and a few other big cities, the Serbian countryside (where media exposure was often limited to Serbian television) remained true to Milosevic. [38] International observers further found evidence of serious electoral fraud. [39] Milosevic’s final share of the votes was somewhat more than 53 percent, with 32 percent for Panic. In view of the handicaps under which Panic had laboured and the fraud committed by Milosevic’s camp, it may be concluded that Panic had not done at all badly. Under only slightly different circumstances, Milosevic would have won less than half the votes. This would have made a second round of voting necessary, which would have given Panic a new chance.

Did Panic ever have a real chance of winning? The answer to this question depends on one’s assessment of what Milosevic would have done if he had lost the election. Would he have accepted the voice of the electorate, or would he have seized power after all either by changing the constitution or by making use of his support among the police and the military? Western governments believed that he would have taken the latter course, and were therefore not prepared to give Panic any further support. The West was not only disinclined to intervene by use of military force in the developments in the former Yugoslavia; it also hesitated to intervene politically by supporting one of the candidates in the electoral struggle, e.g. by indicating that it might lift sanctions if their preferred candidate won.

Those who had hoped that the ballot box might bring about real change were even more disappointed by the results of the parliamentary elections. Milosevic’s Socialist Party won 101 seats, while Seselj’s party won another 73. The Serbian electorate was apparently not yet tired of war and nationalism. On 29 December, the parliament, dominated by Milosevic and Seselj, passed a motion of no confidence against Panic. He was allowed to stay on until a successor had been nominated. Milosevic forced him to resign in February 1993, and the pharmaceutics magnate returned to the United States after six months as Prime Minister of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Cosic remained in power for longer, but after Panic’s departure it was clear that he did not play a significant role. That applied not only to his position in domestic politics: he was also a spent force on the international political scene. At the end of a visit to the European Parliament on 30 March 1993, where he reacted to all criticism by replying that it was not true or that the MEP in question had never experienced the situation on the ground, the Spanish member of the European People’s Party Concepcio Ferrer summed up the feeling of the House by telling Cosic: ‘We do not speak the same language. That is the worst thing that can happen between peoples. You say you don’t understand us. Well, we don’t understand you.’ [40] With the assistance of Seselj, Milosevic also managed to force Cosic to resign in May 1993, after the latter had been suspected of trying to persuade the army to stage a coup. [41] The man who had been so good at operating behind the scenes had proved that when elected to office, he did not have the skills needed to play the political game according to the rules applying in Belgrade.


[1] Milan Panic, cited in Marcus Tanner, ‘Panic Exhorts Voters to Choose Peace Over War’, The Independent, 18/12/92.

[2] On these elections see e.g. Andrejevich, Radicalization.

[3] Owen, Odyssey, pp. 54-55 and 60; Owen CD-ROM. Owen’s Private Secretary to UK, EC Presidency, 26/11/92 re Visit of Lord Owen to Madrid, 25/11/92, 26/11/92; Stojanovic, Autoritet, p. 52; interview S. Stojanovic, 03/08/01; Djukic, Milosevic, p. 60.

[4] Interview S. Stojanovic, 03/08/01.

[5] Paul Williams & Norman Cigar, ‘Bivsi pravni strucnjaci Pentagona u svojoj stugiji optuzuju: Slobodan Milosevic teski je ratni zlocinac i mora biti izveden pred sud u Haagu!’, Globus, 30/08/96, p. 57.

[6] Owen CD-ROM. Owen’s Private Secretary to UK, EC Presidency, 26/11/92 re Visit of Lord Owen to Madrid, 25/11/92, 26/11/92.

[7] Cf. MID. MID, Ontwikkelingen in de voormalige Joegoslavische federatie, 64/92, 08/09/92; 68/92, 21/09/92; 74/92, 12/10/92; 5/92, 15/10/92; 80/92, 02/11/92.

[8] Cohen, Bonds, p. 273 n. 67.

[9] See also MID. MID, Ontwikkelingen in de voormalige Joegoslavische federatie, 76/92, 20/10/92; 77/92, 22/10/92.

[10] Stojanovic, Fall, pp. 182 and 198; interview S. Stojanovic, 03/08/01.

[11] ABZ, DEU/ARA/00102. Engels 357 to Van den Broek, 23/11/92.

[12] Dukic, Vetra, p. 220; Djukic, Milosevic, p. 61; Thomas, Serbia, p. 126.

[13] Dukic, Vetra, p. 215; Thomas, Serbia, p. 124.

[14] Cf. Djukic, Milosevic, p. 58.

[15] Djukic, Milosevic, p. 59; interview V. Matovic, 02/08/01.

[16] Dukic, Vetra, p. 216.

[17] Nicole Lucas, Milan Panic smeekt om steun EG’ (Milan Panic begs EC for support), Trouw, 06/11/92.

[18] MID. MID, Ontwikkelingen in de voormalige Joegoslavische federatie, 66/92, 14/09/92; 68/92, 22/09/92; 69/92, 25/09/92; 71/92, 01/10/92; 76/92, 20/10/92; 82/92, 06/11/92; 83/92, 08/11/92; 85/92, 13/11/92; 87/92, 18/11/92; 91/92, 17/11/92; Carolne de Gruyter, ‘”Wie de man van de toekomst is? Ik!”’ (Who is the man of the future? Me!), Elsevier, 19/12/92, p. 31; interview S. Stojanovic, 03/08/01.

[19] Frank Westerman, ‘Sancties zijn doodsteek voor Panic’ (Sanctions are death blow for Panic), de Volkskrant, 10/11/92.

[20] ABZ, 910 Joegoslaivë/algemeen correspondentie/deel 4 juli 1992-febr 1993. Joegoslavië algemene, informele bijeenkomst van Ministers van Buitenlandse Zaken (Gymnich) in Brocket Hall (informal meeting of Foreign Ministers (Gymnich) at Brocket Hall), 12-13/09/92; interview H. Jovanovic, 14/09/01.

[21] ABZ, DEU/2002/0001. Van den Broek 12 to Luxembourg embassy, 06/10/92.

[22] ABZ, DEU/ARA/05244. Biegman 884 (Van den Broek) to Foreign Affairs, 22/09/92.

[23] ABZ, DPV/ARA/01802. Hoekman 592 to Van den Broek, 03/11/92; Van den Broek 152 to Belgrade embassy, 06/11/92.

[24] ABZ, DPV/ARA/01803. Hoekman 676 to Van den Broek, 09/12/92.

[25] ABZ, DEU/ARA/00085. Engels 317 to Van den Broek, 23/10/92 (two copies with different marginal notes); COREU message The Hague, 23/10/92, cpe/hag 656, COREU message British chairmanship of EC, cpe/pres/lon 1605; COREU message European Commission, 23/10/92, cpe/cee 415; COREU The Hague, 23/10/92, cpe/hag 658.

[26] ABZ, DEU/ARA/00102. Engels 332 to Van den Broek, 05/11/92.

[27] MID. MID, Ontwikkelingen in de voormalige Joegoslavische federatie, 72/92, 05/10/92. See also Ramet, Babel, p. 203.

[28] Thomas, Serbia, p. 131.

[29] ABZ, DPV/ARA/01806. Jacobovits 2005 to Van den Broek, 18/12/92.

[30] Cf. MID. MID, Ontwikkelingen in voormalig Joegoslavië 72/92, 05/10/92 and ABZ, 911.31, Joegoslavië. Politieke verhoudingen en partijen, deel V-VI, mei 1992-april 1993, MID, Ontwikkelingen in de voormalige Joegoslavische federatie, 97/92, 14/12/92.

[31] Owen CD-ROM. Co-Chairmen’s message on Yugoslav elections, 15/12/92; Ramcharan, Conference, p. 1220; Eisermann, Weg, p. 146.

[32] Eisermann, Weg, pp. 146-147.

[33] Owen CD-ROM. Intervention by Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, 16/12/92; Ramcharan, Conference, pp. 232-236; Elaine Sciolino, ‘U.S. names figures it wants charged with war crimes’, The New York Times, 17/12/92.

[34] Don Oberdorfer, ‘A Bloody Failure in the Balkans’, The Washington Post, 08/02/93.

[35] Interview S. Stojanovic, 03/08/01.

[36] Stojanovic, Fall, p. 215; Dukic, Vetra, p. 232. Cf. interviews S. Djukic, 04/08/01; S. Stojanovic, 03/08/01.

[37] Bosnet, 15/12/92, 8:06:30PST.

[38] Cf. Raymond van den Boogaard, ‘Milosevic beheerst de provincie’ (Milosevic controls the countryside), NRC Handelsblad, 18/12/92; F. Westerman, ‘”Milan Panic zal alleen van Belgrado president zijn”’ (Milan Panic will only be President of Belgrade), de Volkskrant, 16/12/92; De Hoop, Servië, p. 441.

[39] Eisermann, Weg, p. 147; Thomas, Serbia, p. 135; Henk Hirs, ‘Het is een rommeltje in Servische stembureaus’ (Shambles in Serbian polling stations), Trouw, 21/12/92; idem, ‘Milan Panic eist nieuwe verkiezingen in Servië’ (Milan Panic demands new elections in Serbia), Trouw, 22/12/93. See also Doder and Branson, Milosevic, pp. 168-172; M. van Silfhout, Overledenen stemmen bij Servische verkiezingen’ (The dead return to vote in Serbian elections), Democraat 26 (1993) 1.

[40] ABZ, DEU/ARA/00112. Bot 125 to Kooijmans, 01/04/93.

[41] Cohen, Bonds, p. 352; Djukic, Milosevic, p. 62; Ramet, Babel, p. 203; Dukic, Vetra, pp. 227-229; Libal, Serben, pp. 185-186; Stojanovic, Autoritet, pp. 55-56.