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King Simeon II to Leave Bulgaria After Near Messianic Tour

Sofia, June 14 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria's King Simeon II plans to return to his home in Spain on Sunday following a three week tour of Bulgaria -- his first trip to his native land since he went into exile 50 years ago. A spokesman (unnamed) said Simeon wants to rejoin his family in time for his 59th birthday on Sunday.

Despite decades of communist propaganda directed against Simeon and his Saxe-Coburg-Gotha family, the King-in-exile now appears to command near universal respect in his homeland. His popularity is unmatched by any politicians there.

Hundreds of thousands of people turned out to give Simeon ecstatic receptions in large Bulgarian cities like Sofia and Plovdiv. He found smaller but equally warm receptions at the many villages and towns that he visited across the country.

Even in the most isolated countryside, farmers and other curious rural residents lined the railways and roads to catch a momentary glimpse of Simeon as he passed in his train or motorcade. And Simeon made great efforts to smile, wave and even speak personally with his admirers wherever he went.

On his first day in Sofia, Simeon ordered his motorcade to stop amid an enormous crowd when he saw a police officer pushing an elderly man. Simeon raised a roar of approval from those close at hand when he got out of his black limousine and told the officer never to behave in such a manner.

In villages like Dupnitsa, about 40 kilometers south of Sofia, police could hardly force a path for him through thousands of people who awaited his arrival in cold and rain. One elderly woman shouted "I've lived to see him back! Please let me just touch him."

A survey published last week in Sofia's daily Standart newspaper found that about 87 percent of Bulgarians had formed a positive impression of Simeon during his visit. Only two percent said they disapproved of him.

More importantly, other surveys have shown that more than 16 percent of Bulgarians now want Simeon to return to Bulgaria permanently under a constitutional monarchy. While that figure isn't enough to bring about the constitutional changes required to restablish some form of royal system, it does signify a growing trend in favor of monarchy. Fewer than four percent of Bulgarians voted for pro-monarchy candidates in the December 1994 elections that brought a Socialist majority to the parliament.

Political scientist Ognian Minchev said Simeon is "contrastingly attractive" when compared to other Bulgarian political figures. Most of these are either former communists reluctant to shed their heritage, or fierce anti-communists who blame all of the country's current problems on the Marxist past.

Simeon saw for himself the deep economic and political crises being suffered by his people -- including bread and petrol shortages and the continuing decay of the shaky banking system. And though he tactfully stayed out of the political fray, it is clear that the monarchist movement has picked up great momentum.

Standart's survey found that two-thirds of Bulgarians now think former Communists in the governing Socialist Party fear Simeon's popularity.

Socialists Prime Minister Zhan Videnov, keen to avoid building Simeon into a public figure, refused to meet him. The Socialist-controlled state media refer to the King-in-exile simply as Simeon Coburgostki, his Bulgarian passport name. The state media has provided only limited coverage of his near messianic visit.

For his part, Simeon has not ruled out running for the presidency at some future date. But legal complications make his candidacy unlikely -- at least in the near future.

Bulgaria's post-communist constitution was drawn up and ratified by a Socialist-dominated special assembly in 1991. The constitution contains a clause that many analysts say was included specifically to prevent Simeon's return to power through elections. That clause says that any presidential candidate must be a Bulgarian-born citizen who has resided in Bulgaria for a full five years before the election.

Changing that constitution would require approval of a public referendum. Considering the Socialists' current domination of parliament, such a referendum appears unlikely.

Simeon was just a boy of nine when he fled Bulgaria in 1946 after the communist takeover. But Simeon never abdicated and he doesn't recognise the post-war referendum that abolished the monarchy. Simeon says that referendum was rigged by the communists with the backing of the Soviet Army.