A true royal revival in Europe, or just nostalgia?

From Bulgaria to Austria and Italy, dethroned royals want more respect.

The king is deposed; long live the prime minister.

But hang on a minute. Didn't that prime minister used to be king?

King Simeon II of Bulgaria was 9 when he was ousted by a rigged Communist referendum in 1946. But last Sunday, the day after his 64th birthday, Bulgarian voters gave his National Movement a striking victory in parliamentary elections.

And in doing so, they breathed new life into a royal revival in Eastern Europe that has seen bluebloods strutting back onto the public stage after more than half a century of obscure exile.

From Madrid to Johannesburg and London, once-crowned heads have been heading home since the collapse of communism to reclaim their honor - if not their thrones.

Political aspirations

King Simeon, who never abdicated, would be the first of his ilk to become prime minister, if he takes the job on the strength of his party's triumph in Sunday's elections. He has refused to say whether that is his goal - which would be difficult, given the requirement to swear loyalty to the Bulgarian republic.

Until his campaign this spring, Simeon had called Spain home. That country restored its monarchy in 1975, crowning King Juan Carlos after 35 years of rule by General Franco.

But not all former royals have enjoyed Simeon's success. Would-be King Leka I of Albania, who lives with his mother in South Africa, led a referendum in his homeland in 1997 to restore the crown, but won only a third of the votes. His hopes of a triumphal return are complicated by the charges he faces in Albania of carrying an unlicensed firearm.

Romania's King Michael I has fared better, after a rocky start. When he tried to go home in 1990 he was immediately deported, but the government restored his citizenship in 1996 and enlisted him as a roving ambassador to promote Romania's failed bid for early membership of NATO. Last month, President Ion Iliescu gave back his former royal palace, apologizing to the former king for the way his country had treated him since the Communists forced his abdication in 1947.

Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia has also been rehabilitated in Belgrade since the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic last year. Born to his exiled parents in London, the prince has made his living as an insurance broker in England.

A supporter of President Vojislav Kostunica, Alexander has presented himself as a symbol of national reconciliation. But he has given up hopes of uniting Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, and Slovenes into the sort of Yugoslav kingdom that his father Peter II ruled before being ousted by Tito.

Elsewhere in the former Communist empire, restoration is not in the cards. Too many members of the Radziwill clan have laid claim to the defunct Polish throne to make any one claim pre-eminent. Likewise, the Russians have not shown any great desire to see the Romanovs back in charge, although 20-year-old Prince Georgi has revived a family tradition by attending the naval college in St. Petersburg.

In Hungary, however, Gyorgy von Hapsburg moved to Budapest in 1994 and started reviving memories of the Austro-Hungarian empire that his family ruled until Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, precipitating World War I.

Gyorgy runs Central Europe's biggest film-production and distribution company, and has also played a political role. He was made ambassador extraordinaire in Hungary's bid to join the European Union, which it is now set to do within the next three years.

Gyorgy certainly enjoys wide connections in Western Europe. His father, Otto von Hapsburg, has been a prominent figure in European politics for decades - opposing first the Nazis from his exile in the United States, and then the Communists.

He is a member of the European Parliament, representing the state of Bavaria in his adopted Germany.

That citizenship gives him the right to use the title 'von' in his name. His son Karl, who lives in Vienna, is forbidden by Austrian law to use the honorific, and calls himself simply 'Herr Hapsburg'."

Boys, stay away!

At least he is permitted to live in his homeland. One European country still forbids male descendants of its former royal family even to step foot in their country. And it is not a country behind the old Iron Curtain.

Italy has barred entry to all male descendants of the House of Savoy since 1946, because wartime King Victor Emmanuel III signed Fascist laws passed by Benito Mussolini's government.

In Switzerland, where he has lived since he was expelled in 1946 at the age of 9, Prince Victor Emmanuel of Savoy might well wish it had been the Communists who had exiled him.

At least then he would be allowed to come home.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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