For Balkan royals, Bulgaria's Simeon II leads the way

June 17 may bring another shock to the Balkans, which has felt so many. For a change, it would not be murderous - or even violent - but the outcome of a free election. Observers expect that the people of Bulgaria will soon boost the political clout of ex-King Simeon II. Would other Balkan royal pretenders now also come back?

Simeon was last on the Bulgarian throne in 1946 as a boy of 9 after the death of his father. When the Soviet Army installed a communist government in Sofia, it promptly proclaimed the usual people's republic and expelled Simeon, together with his mother. They settled in Spain, where he went into business but also cultivated contacts in the old country. He could count on monarchist sentiment that survived under the new regime. His father and grandfather had made the mistake of siding with Germany in the two world wars, but their rule was humane. The communists later indulged in a brutal ethnic cleansing of the large Turkish community, while the crown in all the turbulence of the period between the wars had no real minority problems. It protected Bulgaria's 50,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

Simeon used his influence in 1991 to help the democratic opposition win a narrow election victory over the communists. When he first made his trip home in 1996, it was a triumph, cheered by hundreds of thousands in the capital. Other visits followed. In 1998, most of his property was restored. Last October, he announced that he was moving his principal residence to Sofia; in April, he established a National Movement for Simeon II to contest the June 17 parliamentary contest.

Simeon is not running for office. A king would be out of place in a parliament. But if his "movement" draws even with the two large parties of right and left, as pollsters expect, and especially if it comes in ahead, Simeon would have a mighty power base.

What would he use it for? Probably not to regain the throne, although he does not object when his supporters address him as "your majesty." Simeon as a person is more popular than the monarchy. His program is vague, but he strongly advocates joining the European Union with its standards of political democracy and market economy. He wants Bulgaria to be in NATO for security and stability. He is a man of the West. All of which fits the national mood. He might well have his eyes on next December's presidential election. The Constitutional Court has ruled that he could not run, citing the five-year-residence condition. But in light of his record since 1996, that might well be stretched.

Compared with Simeon, the other Balkan royals are on more or less respectable ego trips, fueled by nostalgia. The one closest to achieving something is Michael of Romania. He has made his peace with the republican government, is returning to Bucharest and a palace, and has a role - not as a leader, let alone king, but as an ambassador at large, an honorable man with many foreign connections useful in gaining Western recognition of his country's interests. His strong-willed daughter Margarita remains his heir apparent. In Romania, you never know.

In Yugoslavia, the fall of Slobodan Milosevic revived the hopes of Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic for a constitutional monarchy. He was well received on his only trip home, in 1992, calling for peace at the start of Milosevic's disastrous wars. But only this year did the new democratic government return his property and his Yugoslav citizenship, paving the way for him and his family to come home. But his political future is a question mark. The old Yugoslavia has shrunk to Serbia and Montenegro. Should Montenegro peel off and things go sour in Serbia, the seat of his dynasty, Alexander's stock might rise.

There seems to be no prospect of that for ex-King Constatine of Greece. He appears to have no political base, and restoration of the throne he seeks is ruled out by the constitutional abolition of the monarchy in 1974. While there is a dim pretender to the even more shadowy throne of Montenegro, the only other to be reaching for power in the Balkans is King Leka of Albania. This son of the late ex-King Zog was 3 days old when Mussolini's invasion in 1939 forced the family to flee. Leka finally settled in South Africa. Visiting Albania in 1997, he saw his restoration turned down by popular referendum. After returning to South Africa and to his alleged arms dealing, he found himself in trouble with the authorities. His future does not appear bright.

Politics in the Balkans, as everywhere else, is not made of moonbeams.

Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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