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Romania: Former Monarch To Meet With President Iliescu

  • Eugen Tomiuc

King Michael -- Romania's last monarch who was forced by the country's communist leadership to abdicate the throne in 1947 -- arrived today in Bucharest at the invitation of President Ion Iliescu, a former communist whose relations with the former king were tense for much of the past decade. During the three-week visit, Iliescu is likely to sign a bill granting Michael official status as a former head of state. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports that the gesture is being seen as an effort by the new left government to improve its international image.

Prague, 18 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- King Michael (Mihai in Romanian), Romania's last reigning monarch, begins a three-week visit to his homeland today at the invitation of President Ion Iliescu.

King Michael and his consort, Anne of Bourbon-Parma, are scheduled to meet privately with Iliescu tomorrow (Saturday), thus ending more than a decade of animosity which began shortly before Iliescu, a former communist, became Romania's first democratically elected president in 1990.

The former monarch initially declined Iliescu's invitation, which was first extended earlier this year (March). But Michael, who lives in Switzerland, later reversed his decision, saying he had accepted Iliescu's invitation "with pleasure."

Michael's press office announced yesterday (Thursday) that he will make no public statements or grant any interviews before or during the course of the visit. But it did acknowledge that Michael and Anne will have dinner with Iliescu tomorrow. Iliescu's spokeswoman, Corina Cretu, told RFE/RL that both sides agreed to keep the dinner, and the entire visit, as private as possible: "It will be a low-profile dinner, because -- in agreement with the royal house -- we adopted the decision that this visit, initiated by President Iliescu, must not become a media show."

The trip is not Michael's first return to Romania. The former monarch made several visits to his homeland following the fall of communism in 1989. But with only one exception, all of his visits were made during the past four years, when the country's center-right leadership took a moderate stance on Romania's royalist past.

Before then, Iliescu and his ex-communist government had adopted a strongly anti-monarchist position and rejected nearly every attempt by the king to return to his homeland during their seven years in power (1990-96). In December 1990 -- in one of the most awkward episodes in the Iliescu government's history -- Michael was allowed to enter the country only to be expelled several hours later after his motorcade was halted by army trucks.

After his first extended visit in 1992, when some one million Romanians gathered to greet him, Michael was again turned back from the Bucharest airport in 1994. Iliescu and his Social Democracy Party continued their attacks against the king even after they lost power in 1996, accusing the new center-right government of "trampling" on the republican constitution by returning to Michael his Romanian citizenship. But since returning to power last December, Iliescu has had an apparent change of heart, admitting publicly that he "may have made mistakes" in his policy toward the former monarch.

An Iliescu adviser, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that negotiations with the king's office began prior to Iliescu extending his invitation to visit. And spokeswoman Cretu says that the Romanian president believes the time has come for reconciliation:

"[The president] considers Romanian society now to be more stable, more tolerant and more open to dialogue and -- in any case -- more prepared to regard disputes with calm and without exacerbated passion."

But analysts say that in extending an olive branch to Romania's former monarch, Iliescu and his government are hoping to gain greater international credibility. London-based Romanian affairs analyst Dennis Deletant says Iliescu wants to repair the damage done to his image after the harsh treatment he and his government leveled at King Michael in the past.

"I think this is a very smart move on the part of [the Social Democracy Party] and President Iliescu, because clearly, the relations between the present government and the king were at a low ebb until this invitation went out. President Iliescu is trying to repair the damage that was caused during his previous administration by the treatment which he and his government handed out to King Michael. I mean, most notedly, the effective deportation of King Michael when he managed to visit the country briefly in the early '90s."

Iliescu's symbolic gesture of reconciliation is being accompanied by more concrete measures. The Senate -- the Romanian parliament's upper chamber -- this week (May 17) passed a bill, already approved by the lower chamber, granting 79-year-old Michael the rights extended to all former Romanian heads of state. The rights include an official residence with an adviser and secretary, security, a stipend, and a car with a driver.

Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said today the new legislation will ensure "civilized treatment" for Michael should he decide to take advantage of it.

Presidential spokeswoman Cretu says it is possible that Iliescu will sign the bill while Michael is still in Romania.

"There are some very clear procedures -- [the law] must first arrive at the presidency, then some time is necessary for analysis. But [the signing] may, in fact, coincide with the former monarch's stay in Romania."

Nastase's government has gone even further in its goodwill gestures. Last month (April 12), once Michael had accepted Iliescu's invitation to visit, the prime minister announced the government would abandon a challenge to the former king's legal right to reclaim two properties in Romania. The government also invited Michael to establish his official residence at Elisabeta Palace, a former royal property in Bucharest. The king is staying at the palace during his current visit.

Michael is a member of the German Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen dynasty that ruled Romania from 1866 until 1947. He was king twice -- first as a child in the late 1920s, under a three-member regency after the death of his grandfather, King Ferdinand, and second, between 1940 and 1947, after his father, King Charles (Carol, in Romanian), the Second abdicated.

Michael's second reign was largely symbolic, as the country came under the power first of military dictator Ion Antonescu and then of governments increasingly controlled by Soviet-supported communists. But Michael did use his title to play a major role in overthrowing Antonescu, an ally of Adolf Hitler, in 1944 and in signing an armistice with the Allied Powers.

In 1947, communists forced Michael to abdicate the throne and leave the country. While living in exile in Switzerland, he alternately worked as a stockbroker, a farmer, and a test pilot. Michael still considers himself Romania's king, even though he says he recognizes the country's new governing model. In 1997, he publicly designated his elder daughter, Princess Margaret (Margareta, in Romanian), as his heiress. However, after more than 50 years, the monarchy enjoys little popular support among Romanians, most of whom were born after the king's abdication.

Analyst Deletant says that by passing a law on the status of former heads of state, Iliescu's administration is actually preventing any further claims by Michael's family.

"The law doesn't give the same rights to the descendants of a former head of state and, really, the Romanian authorities are wiping the slate clean through this law in terms of any claims that the monarchy or King Michael's descendants might have against them."

Iliescu said last month that he would not object to Michael re-entering the Romanian political fray, following the example of Bulgaria's former monarch, Simeon II, who recently established his own political party in the run-up to that country's June parliamentary elections. But unlike Simeon, Michael has expressed little interest in returning to politics, rejecting an offer in 1992 to run for president as a right-wing opposition candidate.

Still, Michael could prove a strategic political ally for Iliescu. The former king still enjoys considerable sympathy in Western political circles as the only surviving head of state from World War II. Moreover, his blood ties with Western European royal families could prove a benefit to the Romanian political class.

Now, as Romania once again seeks to polish its image in hopes of earning an invitation to begin NATO admission talks, analysts say both Iliescu and his government may be trying to win Michael's support. But Deletant says that Iliescu's overtures to Michael may be too little and too late in light of what he considers a series of blunders the government has already made in its bid to enter NATO.

"Well, undoubtedly, I think [Iliescu's and the government's friendly overtures towards Michael] are part of a plan to attempt to improve Romania's image. However, it's only a part -- because we've seen that since the victory of the [Social Democracy party] in the elections in November 2000 and the return of President Iliescu, they have made a number of mistakes, in my view, regarding [NATO] accession. One of them is the scandal involving the appointment of a former Securitate [Romanian communist secret police] officer to the supervisory body of the foreign intelligence service."

If Michael does decide to support the government's efforts, it will not be for the first time. In 1997, at the request of Romania's then center-right government, he lobbied for his country's admission into NATO, traveling to Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, and other Western European countries with constitutional monarchies.