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Bulgaria: Premier's Restitution Claims Raise Legal Problems, Public Outcry

  • Julia Geshakova

Could it be that two years ago, when he became prime minister of Bulgaria, Simeon Saxecoburggotski, the former king, had something else in mind besides the well-being of his impoverished countrymen? Local media reports that Saxecoburggotski was restituted real estate worth millions of dollars have cast a shadow over the prime minister's image as a leader who returned from years in exile to work for the good of the nation.

Prague, 1 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Musala, in the Rila Mountains, is the highest peak in Bulgaria. It was included, according to media reports, among the large swathes of land claimed by the country's former king as his own.

In the end, Simeon Saxecoburggotski was not awarded the 2,925-meter-high peak, but several former palaces, as well as vast plots of farmland and forest, were returned to his ownership. In exchange for Musala, currently part of a state nature reserve, Saxecoburggotski reportedly was compensated with other land in a prime location.

No official list has been published of the properties Saxecoburggotski is claiming. Media estimates of their worth are in the range of $170 million to more than $250 million.

The former king himself -- who is not a talkative person -- has dismissed the issue as an "artificially created" campaign. In a rare comment recently, he suggested he is claiming his family's former properties back so they can be properly managed.

Saxecoburggotski fled Bulgaria as a child in 1946 following the communist takeover. After spending decades in exile, he became prime minister in 2001 after his newly established political movement won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections.

The prime minister pledged to improve Bulgarians' poor living standards and uproot corruption, but many Bulgarians feel that, so far, he has failed to keep his promises. The reports about his property claims have not helped his falling popularity ratings.

Mirela Veselinova is a journalist who wrote a series of articles on the former king's property claims for the popular daily "Trud." She said the issues are legally complex but that they can be reduced to two basic problems. First, she said, there is the problem of whether Saxecoburggotski and his sister Maria Luisa, currently living in the United States, are the lawful owners of the properties they claim. And then there is the question of whether the restitution was done in accordance with existing legislation. Restitution of property in Bulgaria is based on a 1992 law and is primarily an administrative process carried out by local authorities.

Veselinova said some of the properties claimed by Saxecoburggotski were, in fact, only leased by the state to the king's family. "The question arises whether all the properties now being returned to the former king's family, to Simeon [Saxecoburggotski] and to Maria Luisa as heirs of King Boris III really were personal property of the royal family, or were they property of the state that the state gave, in one way or another, to the king's household to use? In other words, [the question is whether they are] properties of the crown and are not personally owned by the king," Veselinova said.

Some legal experts also argue that restitution is unlawful in the absence of special legislation. The former king got back his properties on the basis of a 1998 Constitutional Court ruling that declared their nationalization by the communists to be unconstitutional but did not have the power to annul it.

Aleksandar Dzherov is one of those legal experts. A professor of property law, he was one of the authors of the 1992 restitution law, which he said does not provide for the restitution of former royal properties. "In 1947 and 1948, there was a special law under which the real estate properties of King Ferdinand, King Boris III, and their heirs were confiscated," he said. "That law is not listed among the laws that were invalidated with the restitution law [of 1992], which means that properties confiscated under the [1947] law cannot be returned to the heirs of King Boris. The restitution of properties to Simeon Saxecoburggotski and his sister is [in the absence of a special law] unlawful."

In 1992, when the restitution law was adopted, Bulgaria was governed by the center-right Union of Democratic Forces (SDS). The former king, then living in exile, was at the time seen as a natural ally of the anticommunist SDS. In the 2001 parliamentary election, the SDS suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of Saxecoburggotski's newly created National Movement Simeon II.

Could it be that the current conundrum is simply the result of a legislators' omission? That, at least, is what Dzherov suggests. "Neither I, nor my colleagues [in the Legislation Committee], knew there was such a law [on the 1947 nationalization of the former king's properties]," he said. "We could not know then how many laws were drafted in the period of 1946, '47, '48, '49. Communist rulers at the time were very prolific -- for example, the confiscation, the nationalization [of properties] for purely political reasons were carried out under some 20 laws."

The arguments may be legal, but the debate has unmistakable political overtones. Opponents are calling for a parliamentary commission to investigate. Supporters say the media reports are part of a political campaign to undermine Saxecoburggotski's government.

In becoming prime minister, Bulgaria's former king may be an exception among former monarchs in once-communist Eastern Europe. But he apparently is not unique in claiming former properties. The independent Montenegrin weekly "Monitor" this week reported that the heirs of the Serbian Karadjordjevic dynasty are seeking to get back some former properties in Montenegro. The claims reportedly included prime locations on the Adriatic coast.