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Balkans: Ex-Kings And Would-Be Kings Find New Roles

Prague, 5 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- When Albanians go to the polls on June 29 to elect a new parliament, they will also be given another option to end strife in their violence-wracked country -- restoring the monarchy.

President Sali Berisha has put the question of creating a constitutional monarchy on the ballot, so that Albanians will have an opportunity to pronounce on the future of would-be king Leka Zogu, son of the man who declared himself king of their country in the period between the two world wars.

More than 50 years since they were sent packing, the former and would-be kings of the Balkans -- Simeon of Bulgaria, Michael of Romania, Alexander of Serbia and Leka Zogu -- are suddenly experiencing new hopes of reclaiming their thrones.

Observed David Williamson, co-editor of DeBrett's Peerage, a London-based tracker of noble family trees: "Events in the Balkans give them all hope that they may be restored."

There has certainly been a flurry of activity among Balkan royalty lately.

Perhaps most prominent is King Michael of Romania, who has been tapped as a roving ambassador by the new center-right government that ousted the former Communists last November. These days King Michael is making the rounds of Western European capitals, pressing Romania's case for early admission into NATO.

King Simeon of Bulgaria, now 59, became king when he was six, after the mysterious death of his father Boris III in 1943. But three years later the monarchy was abolished and he was expelled from his homeland. He made first return visit in May 1996, and was active in the country this spring before recent parliamentary elections, appearing before thousands of supporters and urging his countrymen to vote for economic and political reform

Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov has said he would support holding a referendum on restoring the monarchy if Parliament wants it, but it does not seem high on the Bulgarian parliament's agenda.

Leka Zogu, a physically impressive man who stands two meters tall, strode back onto the Albanian political scene during the recent anarchy which swept the country in the wake of the collapse of fraudulent investment schemes.

Of all the claimants to Balkan thrones, Leka's claim is the most tenuous. His father, Zog, a tribal warlord, became Albania's prime minister in 1922 when he was still in his twenties. In 1928, the National Assembly gave him a title that translated into "prince." However, Zog proclaimed himself "His Majesty King Zog I" and the constitution called for his son to succeed him. Zog died in France in 1961, and Leka was sworn in by a government-in-exile. He has received a mixed reception from his countrymen during his recent forays into politics.

What is the attraction of these ex- and would-be kings? Williamson of DeBrett's Peerage explains it this way: "The people have suffered for decades under Communism. They see (monarchy) as a return to stability and stable government, when they look at the accomplishments of England, Spain, the Scandinavian countries," which are constitutional monarchies.

This was certainly the feeling of Milanilo Jevtic, a Yugoslav businssman who came out to demonstrate in Belgrade last winter to support the opposition in its fight against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. He said he was in favor of restoring the monarchy in what is left of Yugoslavia because, "look at the countries that have monarchies -- England, Sweden, Holland, Denmark, Spain, Japan. They're all rich countries."

But some analysts see a darker side to the psychological appeal of restoring monarchies in the Balkans. Michael Shafir, a Romania analyst with RFE/RL, said it reflects a lack of viable solutions to the crisis -- particularly economic -- these four Balkan countries find themselves in. Shafir says that rather than see the solution in institutions, people in these countries "see them in people. They want saviours, somebody to take them out of their plight."

But what, realistically, are the chances that the Balkan kings will return to their thrones? Patrick Moore, a Balkans analyst for RFE/RL, points out that the returning monarchs attract large crowds, but monarchist parties have never polled more than a few percentage points in elections since 1990.

Observers say that Michael deserves more than anyone to come back to power, but that his age -- he is 75 -- works against him. But his record as a monarch is impeccable. In 1944, he organized a coup against Romania's pro-Nazi dictator, Marshal Antonescu, only to be double-crossed by Stalin and betrayed by the Allies, who ceded his country to the Russians at Yalta in 1945. In 1947 the Communist regime under Petru Groza forced Michael to abdicate and sent him into exile.

Analyst Moore says that in the right circumstances -- the disappearance of Milosevic from the scene in Serbia and a vacuum in the opposition -- Crown Prince Alexander might possibly make a comeback in Serbia. His dynasty is a long and native Serbian one, deeply imbedded in the Serbian psyche, unlike the monarchs of Bulgaria and Romania, who descend from German princely houses, or Leka whose so-called dynasty is only one generation old.

In Bulgaria, Simeon is consistently ranked one of the country's two or three most popular figures, but the Bulgarian press suggests that only two or three percent of the electorate actually favors a return to monarchy.

As for Albania, Leka has recently been closely identified with the deeply-unpopular Berisha, a factor that may work against him in the June 29 referendum.

So don't look for any of the kings to make a royal come-back any time soon. As analyst Moore concludes: "There doesn't seem to be much of a groundswell for monarchy in any of these countries."