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Bulgaria: Exiled King Attempts Political Comeback

  • Jolyon Naegele

Bulgaria's exiled former king this week registered a political movement that he intends to lead in parliamentary elections this June. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele notes, this is the second attempt -- but by no means the last -- by an exiled former monarch in post-communist Southeastern Europe to engage in domestic politics.

Prague, 11 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The exiled former king of Bulgaria, Simeon II, has applied to a court in Sofia to register a newly founded political party, the Simeon II National Movement.

At a ceremony last Friday to announce the new movement, Simeon declared himself "resolute, as never before" to fulfill what he said was his historic duty to Bulgaria:

"Today I want to declare my goal to found and lead a movement in the name of new ethics in politics, new economic decisions with ideas that for Bulgaria are new, and new leaders. By this address, I set the beginning of the Simeon II National Movement."

Simeon says he hopes to field candidates in general elections 17 June, a day after his 64th birthday.

He says his movement has three essential goals: to improve the standard of living by turning the economy into a working market economy; to abandon political partisanship to unify the Bulgarian nation by historic ideals and values; and to introduce new rules and institutions to eliminate corruption.

Simeon said he would propose a system of economic measures "to change the lives of Bulgarians within 800 days."

He insists the party is not a monarchist movement. In his words, "it must be clear to all that monarchy is not on the movement's agenda. There are much more important priorities for the country."

"This movement which I am founding will be neither a coalition of existing political parties nor a union of political leaders. Neither political figures nor parties are the movement's target, because I am confronting no one."

The ruling center-right Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) has the most to lose from the movement because both groups will be competing for the same bloc of voters. Prime Minister and UDF leader Ivan Kostov has expressed doubt that Simeon will actually be a candidate himself.

Public opinion polls published this week give Simeon's party about half of the vote, far ahead of the UDF and the opposition Socialists and a remarkable development from just six weeks ago when the polls were suggesting a party led by Simeon would only garner about eight percent of the vote.

The Prince of Tirnovo, as he was known as a child, acceded to the throne at the age of six following the death of his father, King Boris, in 1943. A three-man regency ruled until the communists seized power a year later. In 1946, the communists rigged a referendum to dissolve the monarchy and declare Bulgaria a republic. Simeon, without abdicating the throne, left with his family for Istanbul and subsequently to Egypt.

In 1951, the Spanish government granted asylum to the Bulgarian royal family. Spain remains Simeon's main residence, where he has made a career as a successful businessman and with his wife, Dona Margarita, raised five children: four princes and a princess.

In 1996, half a century after fleeing Bulgaria and nearly seven years after the collapse of communist rule, Simeon returned to Bulgaria to a tumultuous welcome by hundreds of thousands of people who jammed the streets of Sofia to catch a glimpse of him.

Bulgarian authorities subsequently restituted residences and parks to the royal family and granted Simeon a Bulgarian passport in the name of "Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburgotski."

But two months ago, Bulgaria's Constitutional Court ruled that Simeon cannot run for president because he had not lived in the country for the better part of five years. At the time, Simeon responded that people who want to vote for him will be able to do so in the general elections.

In his declaration on 6 April, Simeon said "it was painful" to see how the dream in Bulgaria had been replaced by what he said was poverty and desperation. He said it was "neither morally nor politically acceptable" that by European standards, the majority of Bulgarians are living in misery while some politicians live in opulence. He noted Bulgaria is suffering from a brain drain as thousands of citizens leave the country, forced away, he said, by a "lack of opportunity."

Bulgaria's census committee announced yesterday that on the basis of a national census last month the population of Bulgaria has shrunk by about 500,000 since 1992 to just under eight million because of a high mortality rate, fewer births, and emigration. And that decline followed a previous drop of 410,000 between 1985 and 1992, largely due to the mass exodus of ethnic Turks to Turkey in 1989.

Simeon is not the first former Balkan monarch to try to make a political comeback. Leka Zogu, the pretender to the Albanian throne who as a newborn was taken abroad during the Italian invasion of 1939, eventually settling in South Africa, tried and failed to secure a comeback amid the anarchy of 1997. His royal pedigree is open to question as his father, Ahmet Zogolli, was an interior minister in the early 1920s who became president and subsequently declared himself king Zog I.

Two-thirds of Albanian voters in a national referendum in June 1997 opposed the restoration of the monarchy. Leka's supporters alleged the vote had been manipulated and victory stolen. Leka, armed with grenades and guns and dressed in military fatigues, together with armed supporters, staged a demonstration in Tirana that turned violent, resulting in the death of one person and the wounding of two others. Leka subsequently returned to exile in South Africa.

More than two years later, the Tirana district court sentenced Leka in absentia to three years in prison for his role in the rally.

Romania's King Michael, living in exile in Switzerland, has expressed no interest in entering the Romanian political fray. President Iliescu in 1990 barred Michael from entering the country and two years later shortened a visit by Michael and his family after a million people turned out to welcome the Romanian monarch home. Now following a recent downturn in Iliescu's political fortunes, he has invited Michael to an exhibition opening and dinner in Bucharest next month.

The next royal family likely to enter the Balkan political fray is the "Royal House of Serbia and Yugoslavia," led by exiled Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic. Alexander was born in London in 1945, four years after his father King Peter II fled Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia.

In an Easter message released from his London residence, Alexander announced his intention to return as soon as possible to Belgrade with his family. Belgrade authorities last month granted Yugoslav citizenship and rights to the royal family 54 years after the communists deprived family members of their citizenship.

Alexander said, "the changes that have taken place as a result of last year's September and December elections have given us hope that people are resolved to avoid past mistakes and to embark along the path of democracy." But he expressed regret that instead of having a chance to concentrate energies on tackling economic and social problems, the authorities have been forced to deal with problems such as the plight of Serbs in Kosovo and the unresolved issue of relations with Montenegro. Alexander warned that as regards Montenegro, separation would be what he called an absolute tragedy.

And without mentioning jailed former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic by name, Alexander said: "as recent events have shown, no one can be or should be above the law. There must be no revenge but those who have blatantly violated the law and national interest must be brought to justice."

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