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The Call of Balkan Realms

The region's royals are returning from exile, seeking political influence, monarchical restoration or simply to serve their nations.


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — Sitting on a bench in this decayed capital, a retired high school teacher poured out his pain from long years of misrule, wars, international sanctions and social rot.

"You can see these people are very beautiful, very good-looking," said Vojislav Todorovic, 69, motioning toward downtown passersby. "But they are very sad. Hardly anyone smiles in this country. Everything was destroyed. People have nothing. . . . Everything has a bad stench. Love is gone. Young people have totally wrong values."

Todorovic sees hope, however, in Crown Prince Alexander II Karadjordjevic, the London-born heir to the Yugoslav throne, who moved into an ancestral palace in Belgrade last summer and has worked hard to build his popularity.

"I look forward to the moment when he will become king," Todorovic said. "The monarchy would overcome the divisions among the people."

During decades of communism, Alexander and other exiled Balkan royalty were nearly forgotten. Now kings and princes, queens and princesses are reemerging from exile, moving into old palaces and seeking political influence, monarchical restoration or simply ways to serve their nations.

This second chance for the region's crowned and would-be-crowned heads has arisen out of the social upheaval that followed the collapse of communism. It reflects the shortcomings of party politics in countries without strong democratic traditions, and a desire to get beyond the tragic memories of Nazi and Communist rule by restoring proud traditions. Throughout the Balkans, broken societies are searching for saviors.

The region's young democracies would be strengthened by restoring their monarchs, supporters argue. They often cite Spain's return to a monarchy with Juan Carlos I's ascension to the throne in 1975 and the king's role in backing democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco.

Most Balkan royals say they favor Britain's constitutional monarchy, where Queen Elizabeth II plays a figurehead role as head of state and symbol of the nation while real power lies with the elected government. At the very least, all the royals aim to be symbols of unity for their troubled nations. Most have tried to nudge their countries toward restoring their thrones, without appearing too eager.

But so far, support for the constitutional changes needed to reinstate monarchies has not been strong. The politics of the region, however, are unpredictable.

Bulgarian voters' longing for a royal solution already has catapulted former King Simeon II Saxe-Coburg-Gotha of Bulgaria--a long-ago child monarch who until last year was an obscure Madrid businessman--into real power for the first time in his adult life. He created a party that came out of nowhere to win elections in June, making him prime minister.

Alexander, 56, is a former insurance broker with British manners and a limited ability to speak his people's language--but a knack for the public relations of monarchical restoration. He is now prominent in Belgrade's elite, and some who once dismissed him as a joke believe that he may have a growing role to play--especially if the ruling coalition self-destructs from infighting.

An Ipress poll released last month in Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia, showed 20% of respondents favoring restoration of the monarchy. That level of support is enough to make Alexander a player.

Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, 64, also reflects the orientation of someone who from childhood has been imbued with the democratic values of Western Europe. But he has the advantage of speaking fluent Bulgarian.

Claimants to Thrones

The other claimants to the region's thrones are Romania's King Michael I Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, 80; Albania's King Leka I Zogu, 62; and Prince Nicholas II Petrovic Njegos, 57, of Montenegro, the smaller republic in Yugoslavia.

During his reign in World War II, Michael was a figurehead controlled by a pro-Nazi regime. But in 1944 he led a coup that moved his country to the Allied side. Only in the last year has he won full acceptance from Romanian authorities, enjoying a reconciliation dinner in May with President Ion Iliescu, a former Communist. Michael has recovered some dynastic properties--including a 17th century castle--but is based in Switzerland, where he has lived for decades.

Leka, a 6-foot-8-inch gun-toting former arms merchant living in South Africa, faces charges in Albania of carrying an unlicensed firearm, which stem from a violent 1997 riot he allegedly provoked the last time he was in the country. Although he has yet to return to Albania, Leka claims that he could bring political stability and unity--and has expressed support for expansion of the nation's borders to include heavily ethnic Albanian parts of neighboring countries.

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