As if a money-laundering scandal and the threat of international economic sanctions were not enough, the once-tranquil principality of Liechtenstein is also facing the worst constitutional crisis in its 300-year history.
"The mixture is like nitroglycerine," says Prime Minister Mario Frick.
From his 13th-century castle on a clifftop eyrie above the small town of Vaduz, Prince Hans-Adam II is trying to impose constitutional reforms that he says will modernize his postage-stampsize principality. And if his people won't accept them, he's off.
"We have decided ... that we would go back to the situation before 1938, when the reigning prince resided outside the country," he says, using the royal 'we.'
The prince has plenty of other places to live: His family owns several palaces in neighboring Austria. His personal fortune, estimated at around $4 billion, includes a US rice company, RiceTec. That, perhaps, is why the languid Hans-Adam II sounds rather detached from his royal role during an interview in his castle.
"We only want a monarchy as long as the people really want it here," he says. "If they want a republic, that's fine by us. There would be no hard feelings from our side."
The prince's reforms center around the nomination of judges: He wants the power to appoint them, and have the 25-member Parliament approve his choices. He says this would make judges more independent, and he points to the way Liechtenstein's courts have proved themselves the weakest link in the country's shaky defenses against money laundering as evidence of the need for change.
The government and the parliamentary opposition, however, disagree with him, and they disagree too over a proposal to alter the terms of princely emergency rule. "The prince talks like a democrat, but he is just interested in getting more power," charges Paul Vogt, one of two left-wing members of the Parliament.
Since this Parliament won't enact the reforms, Hans-Adam says he will see what the next parliament, due to be elected next year, does. If it proves equally recalcitrant, he will seek the 1,500 citizens' signatures he would need to call a national referendum. And if he loses the referendum, he warns, he will go into exile.
"The prince wanted to do something good but it failed, and I hope he withdraws his proposals," says Mr. Frick. "To have domestic problems, on top of the international problems we are facing. It is too much."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society