Aristocrats of Eastern Europe trying to reclaim power, glory

Friday, December 26, 2003

BELGRADE, Serbia-Montenegro -- They spent decades in exile, banned by the communists and largely forgotten at home.

Now some monarchs and aristocrats of the defunct communist bloc are returning in hopes of dusting off their families' past glory and regaining their power or property.

In Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and in the former Yugoslavia, where kings ruled before World War II, the returning royals are presenting themselves as forces for modernization and democracy, who can boost their homelands' prospects for membership in NATO and the European Union.

It's not easy. Some of them, born and raised in exile, barely speak their native language.

Serbia's Crown Prince Aleksandar II is working hard to set the scene for a possible return of the monarchy in a country where democracy has degenerated into political paralysis.

"There has to be explanation what a constitutional monarchy is -- how it works in countries that have it," Aleksandar told The Associated Press in an interview at Belgrade's Royal Palace, where the house of Karadjordjevic reigned off and on from the early 1800s until communists abolished the monarchy in 1945.

Royal lineage

Aleksandar was born to a Greek princess living in Claridge's Hotel in London at the time, and he is a godson of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. A graying, jovial-looking man at 58, his education included a spell at Culver Military Academy in Indiana.

A frequent critic of ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, he occasionally visited his former realm in the 1990s but didn't return to Serbia for good until after Milosevic's ouster in 2000.

A popular figure, the prince says his country should study Spain's successful transition from dictatorship to democracy in the 1970s under King Juan Carlos.

Among those in favor of restoring the monarchy is Patriarch Pavle, head of the influential Serbian Orthodox Church. In a letter to the prince, he said the communists' act of "unprecedented tyranny" should be revoked.

"The whole history of the Serbian people has always been tied to their sovereigns and their families," Pavle said.

Some Serbs agree, especially after they failed to elect a president in three attempts this year because of insufficient voter turnout.

"Anything than not electing a president would be better," said college student Dusan Pavlovic, 18. "Maybe if we have a king, the whole of Europe would respect us more."

But Pavlovic sees no chance for Aleksandar, who speaks halting Serbian and missed the country's devastating 1990s wars.

"He has not lived here and knows what we lived through only from TV."

Although polls in the mid-1990s showed that one in three Serbs backed restoring the monarchy, analysts say the support is far weaker today.

Monarchies thrive -- though without any real power -- in Britain, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Their kings and queens live in palaces, hold pageantry-filled weddings and coronations, and are generally popular among their otherwise democratic and egalitarian-minded subjects.

The returning exiles of eastern Europe cut a different figure. People like Aleksandar wear business suits, open their own doors and in many cases drive their own cars. Some people address them as "Your Highness," but it isn't obligatory.

Royals have found it tough going in other countries, such as Bulgaria, where the nation's former child king, Simeon Saxcoburggotski, returned in 2001 from decades living in Spain, ran for prime minister and was elected.

Saxcoburggotski, a business consultant known to many Bulgarians simply as "Simeon" or "the king," promised to improve dismal living standards within 800 days. The deadline expired last summer, leaving many of his former subjects feeling disillusioned.

In November, thousands marched in protest, carrying a bag of coins symbolizing a one-way airfare back to Spain.

"I feel betrayed by the former king. He came to power with huge promises for a quick improvement of everyday life," said Angel Angelov, 37, a teacher. "Most of these promises remain unfulfilled."

Elsewhere in the region, ex-monarchs play a more low-key role.

For many, a priority is to regain palaces and other property that in most cases have fallen into neglect or are in government hands. Serbia's Aleksandar uses two family palaces, but the third now houses Belgrade's city assembly.

Romania's former King Michael, forced by the communists to abdicate in 1947, returned for his first visit 50 years later. Still living in Switzerland, he has reconciled with the government despite unresolved demands to recover his property.

King Leka Zog I moved back to Albania last year, promising stability in one of Europe's poorest countries if allowed to return to power.

But Albanians, whose monarchy was abolished by the communist regime in 1946, gave a firm "no" in a 1997 referendum and seem unlikely to put Zog back on a throne.

Even those aristocrats who have managed to regain confiscated property have not enjoyed red-carpet welcomes. In most cases, they have had to fight bitterly to recover their estates, and then spend kingly sums restoring properties neglected during communism.

In the Czech Republic, one of the oldest aristocratic families, the Lobkowiczes, have recovered 15 castles as well as land and vineyards.

Jiri Lobkowicz, the head of the family's Melnik line who was born and spent most of his life in exile in Switzerland until his return in 1990, said prized family portraits were found stashed in pig stables -- some with holes punched through the faces.

"You had certain people who really liked to see old families come back and help us," Lobkowicz said. "But you also had a lot of people who just said: 'What the hell are you doing here? You're just stealing back the art from us."'

Overall, though, he's happy to be back.

"Now, I'm a Lobkowicz with a Czech passport, living in the Czech Republic, living in my house," he said. "At the end of the day, I'm doing it because it is my house -- linked to a thousand years of history of this country."

Associated Press reporters Llazar Semini in Albania, Veselin Toshkov in Bulgaria and Alison Mutler in Romania contributed to this story.

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