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Bulgaria Premier Post Is Fit for an Ex-King

Politics: As prime minister, Simeon II would be the first former monarch to regain power in post-Communist Eastern Europe.

July 13, 2001|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Former King Simeon II of Bulgaria said Thursday that he will accept the post of prime minister, ending nearly a month of uncertainty after the victory of his party in June parliamentary elections.

If Simeon, 64, is confirmed by parliament this month, as appears almost certain, it will mark the first return to political power of an ex-monarch or heir to the throne in any of the formerly Communist states of Eastern Europe. But that doesn't mean that Simeon's return from exile to run a country that he left when he was 9 will prove entirely sweet.

"It's sort of being dragged down from the throne--the imaginary throne--into the mire of rough everyday governance," said Deyan Kiuranov, program director at the Center for Liberal Strategies, a think tank in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital.

The decision that Simeon will become prime minister was announced by Plamen Panayotov, a parliamentary leader for the National Movement Simeon II, which won 120 of parliament's 240 seats in the June 17 election.

"With great emotion but with a sense of responsibility, and having in mind the trust that the voters gave me on June 17, I accept this proposal," Simeon said Thursday. "It is no secret that this is an extremely hard and complicated task. . . . I am thinking only about the well-being of our people, and I hope that we will achieve what we have offered to the voters. Let God be with us and show us the right way."

Although Simeon did not run for parliament, he may still serve as prime minister under Bulgarian law.

It is widely believed that Simeon, a distant relative of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, "wanted to opt out" but was "persuaded--not to say coerced" by his supporters and advisors to take the post, Kiuranov said. "This is a good thing for Bulgaria and Bulgarian democracy. . . . Now we're going to judge by performance. Judgment by sentiment and emotion is passed, or it will be very soon."

Simeon's decision means that rather than stay in the background as Bulgaria's most powerful politician, he will have to run the government and try to fulfill electoral promises of higher living standards.

Had he decided to call the shots from behind the scenes, he would have created "an illegitimate . . . nontransparent center of power," Kiuranov said. "We would have had, or could have had, some kind of shadow dictatorship."

Simeon became king in 1943 at the age of 6 after the death of his father, Boris III. He was expelled from the country when a referendum rigged by the post-World War II Soviet-installed Communist government abolished the monarchy in 1946. He went with his mother first to Egypt and then to Spain, where he grew up and became a successful businessman.

Rapturous crowds greeted him when he first revisited his homeland in 1996. He moved back to Sofia and plunged into politics just three months ago, sometimes using his full name in its Bulgarian form, Simeon Saxe-Coburgotski.

Many Bulgarians believe that Simeon would have preferred being president to being prime minister, but he does not meet the residency requirement to run in this December's election. Supporters and critics alike believe that he would like to see restoration of a constitutional role for the monarchy, but he has refused to discuss that issue.

Simeon's acceptance of the prime minister's post--which draws him deeply into the nitty-gritty of running the country--will cut his chances of becoming king again, Kiuranov said. It also further reduces the already slim possibility of parliament revising election rules to let him run for president this year, Kiuranov added.

Simeon drew on an image of high morality and compassion to win votes in June from the unemployed, the rural poor and others who have suffered from market-oriented reforms. But his economic team is composed of young, Western-educated Bulgarian economists who have experience working abroad as investment bankers, brokers and analysts.

Many analysts see a conflict between the expectations of his supporters and the tough market-oriented reform policies supported by these economists, who are expected to fill key posts in his government. If Simeon presses forward with tough but painful reforms, that would be good for the country, but many of his voters will feel "betrayed," Kiuranov said.

Simeon has promised to raise living standards within 800 days. This can be accomplished by the privatization of state enterprises and an improved legal framework to attract foreign investors, said Solomon Passy, a member of parliament from Simeon's party.

Just as Simeon surprised many with his election victory, he will surprise critics with his performance as prime minister, Passy predicted.

Falling one vote short of a majority in parliament, Simeon's movement is widely seen as headed toward a coalition with an ethnic Turkish party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, which has 21 seats. The announcement that Simeon would accept the prime minister's post will "catalyze the coalition talks," Yunal Lutfi, a senior official of the ethnic Turkish party, said Thursday.

Simeon's movement is also holding coalition talks with the outgoing ruling party, the Union of Democratic Forces, which holds similar views on many policy issues. But that party's leaders have said they prefer going into opposition.

Ognyan Gerdzhikov, the parliament's chairman, said he would call a session July 24 to approve the new Cabinet.

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