Milan Panic, a Yugoslav emigre and founder of a multimillion-dollar pharmaceuticals empire in Southern California, has been nominated as prime minister of isolated and war-ravaged Yugoslavia, it was announced here late Wednesday.
The official news agency Tanjug reported that Yugoslavia's newly appointed president, nationalist writer Dobrica Cosic, had forwarded Panic's name (pronounced PAN-eesh) to the federal Parliament for approval.
Panic, who moved to the United States in 1956, had earlier indicated he would not accept the post for lack of unanimous support from Yugoslavia's political, academic and economic circles, according to a spokesman at his ICN Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Costa Mesa.
But the respected Belgrade daily Borba suggested in an article two weeks ago that the chief obstacle to Panic's taking control of the Yugoslav government was a U.S. law that requires anyone swearing an oath of allegiance to a foreign government to give up American citizenship. Cosic wrote to President Bush to ask that an exception be made for Panic, Borba reported, quoting sources in Washington.
Panic's press secretary confirmed that Panic had agreed to fill the post.
"I can tell you that Mr. Panic will accept the offer of President Cosic to become the country's prime minister," said Gus Weill, in a phone interview from Washington.
In Belgrade, another Panic aide, Mihajlo Saranovic, told the British news agency Reuters that Panic had "overcome all legal problems in the United States."
The new Yugoslav federation is made up of only two of the six former Yugoslav republics, Serbia and Montenegro. The job of federal prime minister is not expected to have much power, since control of the federal army, monetary system and security and foreign policy are believed to rest with Serbia's president, Slobodan Milosevic.
The article in Borba said Panic had conditioned his acceptance on Milosevic's quitting, a report since disputed by other Belgrade media.
Whether allied with or opposing Milosevic, Panic, as a successful U.S. businessman, is probably seen by the Belgrade power structure as a much-needed link with the Western world as the federation sinks deeper into economic chaos and international disrepute.
In Costa Mesa, Jack Sholl, spokesman for ICN Pharmaceuticals, the publicly traded company that Panic founded in 1960, said he had not been able to confirm that Panic had accepted the Yugoslav appointment. But he said Panic is scheduled to announce his decision at the National Press Club in Washington today.
Panic, 62, arrived in New York in 1956 with his wife and young son and only $20 in his pocket, according to a corporate history. He soon obtained a scholarship to USC, where he was trained as a chemist. Later, he met Robert A. Smith, a UCLA chemist, and together they started what would later become a $460-million company.
Since then, Panic has been intent on building a pharmaceutical empire, with ICN, three subsidiaries and a joint venture called ICN Galenika in Yugoslavia. In the process, he has raised the hackles of many in the financial community because of his flamboyant style.
Last year, after Food and Drug Administration tests failed to substantiate an ICN subsidiary's claims that one of its drugs, ribavirin, was an effective treatment for the AIDS virus, the Securities and Exchange Commission sued the company, saying it fraudulently misled the public. Without admitting guilt, the company signed a consent decree, agreeing not to violate future securities laws. It agreed to pay $400,000 to settle the civil charges.
Panic, who lives in Pasadena, was the highest-paid executive in Orange County last year, with about $6 million in salary and benefits.
He has close ties to many politicians, including former California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., who until last December was a director of ICN Biomed Inc., one of ICN's subsidiaries. Brown came under fire in March for calling Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and inquiring about ICN's legal troubles.
Williams reported from Belgrade and Gomez from Costa Mesa.