Farmer, Broker, and King
Romania's Michael, forced to abdicate 43 years ago, wants to restore his nation's constitutional monarchy
WASHINGTON — THE most striking aspect of Michael de Roumanie is that he is a dead ringer for a member of the British royal family, with his long face, glassy blue eyes, and generous ears. This is not a coincidence. Mr. de Roumanie, better known as King Michael of Romania, is indeed related to the Windsors as a great-great grandson of Queen Victoria. If he hadn't married a Roman Catholic, he would be 59th in line to the British throne, a spot held instead by the oldest of his five daughters, Princess Margarita.
But King Michael has much weightier preoccupations these days than matters of royal genealogy. Forty-three years after the Communists forced him to abdicate and after a career as a farmer, Lear jet equipment tester, electronics entrepreneur, and New York stockbroker, the King is working full time to retake his position as head of a Romanian constitutional monarchy.
In an interview, King Michael acknowledged that there is no easy answer to the core question: How can he regain the throne and help set Romania on a course of moral and spiritual rejuvenation, when the current regime won't allow him into the country, even for a short visit?
The government of President Ion Iliescu, he says, is only one step removed from the Ceausescu dictatorship it replaced, and "If we want to work properly for the country, get it going, then it [the government] will have to be different. By my experience in the past, this sort of people has a certain mentality that won't change very easily."
From his exile in Geneva, King Michael does what he can to have an impact. He addresses his people by shortwave radio, over BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe. He meets with Romanian politicians. He travels to Western capitals to raise awareness about Romania among politicians and government leaders, pointing out at every turn that the Constitution of 1923 - which states that Romania is a constitutional monarchy - is the country's last legitimate constitution, and must be restored.
After years of feeling as if he was speaking into a telephone with no one at the other end, "now the world is standing up and listening," says the monarch, the only remaining World War II-era head of state.
Still, in the United States, even as President Bush was receiving the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet, neither Mr. Bush nor Secretary of State James Baker received King Michael, to avoid meddling in Romania's internal affairs.
A US official who follows Romania says that while King Michael has support among intellectuals, it is unclear how much popular support he enjoys. In January, the Romanian Institute for Public Opinion Polling asked citizens whom they felt should be head of state. Eighty percent said "president," 13 percent said "king." But, the US official notes, the institute is affiliated with the Romanian government.
Furthermore, says Prof. Vladimir Tismaneanu, a Romanian dissident who teaches political science at the University of Maryland, "for 43 years the Romanian populace has been consistently lied to about 1947," when King Michael abdicated. "For 43 years, the party line has been that the monarchy was an alien body sent by Western powers."
Rumors persist that the King is not of Romanian extraction and does not speak the language. For the record, King Michael says he speaks "4 1/2" languages - Romanian, English, Italian, French, and "enough German that I wouldn't go hungry."
Romanians who know the history of World War II know that King Michael, then in his early 20s, secretly negotiated Romania's switch to the Alliance, arrested dictator Ion Antonescu, and drove the Nazis out. In 1946, President Truman awarded the King a citation for the Legion of Merit, praising "his boldness of action and the high character of his personal leadership."
FORTY-FIVE years later, the King himself is not a player inside Romania, says Professor Tismaneanu. "But the people who support him are. That's the point."
Romania's 2-million-strong Civic Alliance (out of a population of 24 million) supports King Michael, as does the National Peasant Party and the monarchist party. At recent antigovernment demonstrations in Bucharest, protesters chanted for the King. At demonstrations a year ago that was not the case.
"It was under the monarchy that Romania became a modern, independent state," the King told the Heritage Foundation last month, "that the unity of all Romanians was achieved; that parliamentary democracy was adopted, that an agrarian reform giving land ownership to the peasants was carried out; that compulsory education was introduced and the process of industrialization begun."
King Michael speaks of the "Spanish model": In post-Franco Spain, King Juan Carlos has actively guided his country toward democracy. A defining moment came in 1981, when a group of Civil Guards tried a coup d'etat. The King addressed his people by radio, calling on them to put down the attempt to seize power. The coup failed.
In Romania, says King Michael, the transition will be more complicated. "We have the added difficulty that we don't have any structure left," he told the Monitor. "We will have to rebuild ... normal political parties, a normal idea of democracy. There are certain rules.
"Morality, right now, is in shambles," the monarch continues. "That is because of what's been going on for 40 years. People have had to survive, and in surviving people have had to do certain things - cheating, stealing, denouncing each other - which are rather widespread. That is something that I would not accept anymore. You have to give an imprint from the top."
With the ruling National Salvation Front's popularity languishing at 31 percent, down from 66 percent last year, it appears unlikely King Michael will be allowed to visit his homeland any time soon. A year ago at Easter, the Iliescu government denied him permission to visit.
Then at Christmas, the King, his wife, and a daughter flew into Bucharest with Danish diplomatic passports, thinking they could get temporary visas at the airport. Princess Margarita, in fact, was already in the country and had discussed the matter in advance with the prime minister, who tried to discourage the visit.
Within hours of the family's arrival, Romanian security forces had put them back on a plane for Geneva. King Michael says they had planned to stay only for 24 hours, "so as not to provoke," and had intended only to visit ancestral graves.
But, he adds, "a lot of people would have come to see me, and from their [the government's] point of view, I suppose it was unacceptable. To put it quite plainly, they are frightened."