ISSUES & INSIGHTS
Old Royals Finding New Role In Former Totalitarian States
The king of Afghanistan, 87-year-old Mohammed Zahir Shah, had a homecoming on Sunday. He moved back into his Kabul palace, 29 years after a coup ended his 40-year rule.
The June loya jirga, a national tribal council, invited the old king to move in and perform ceremonial functions. But he had to reject any claim to the title of head of state.
Zahir Shah is just the latest in a long line of former monarchs and royal heirs on the comeback trail. Most play symbolic roles, blending tradition with skills learned in exile.
The Taliban's collapse led to an honorary job for the Afghan king. In Europe, communism's collapse led several Balkan countries to bring back their exiled monarchies. Useful Royals Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and what's left of Yugoslavia have found having royalty around can be useful.
How? They keep politicians honest, says Harold Brooks-Baker, publishing director of Burke's Peerage, Britain's archive of aristocracy. "Royal families prevent politicians from coming unstuck and turning into dictators. They're not an anachronism. They're the most stable form of government you can have."
"It's not a major historical swerve to bring back monarchies," said Lee Sigelman, a political scientist at George Washington University. "Many countries with monarchical pasts have authoritarian traditions. Those traditions live on in a yearning for an authority figure who is a national rallying point."
Post-communist governments didn't want royalty back. But the people did. Hundreds turned out in June to cheer the arrival of Leka Zog, 63, in Albania. Exiled in South Africa, he's the son of Zog I, deposed by Mussolini in 1939 and again by communists in 1946.
In 1997, a third of Albanian voters voted to bring back the royal family. Zog was invited back by 40 parliamentary deputies of all parties. He now wants a new referendum to cement public support.
In 1947, communists chased out Romania's King Michael, now 81. He spent decades in Switzerland. Public support forced the post-communist regime to restore his citizenship in 1997. He became a roving envoy for the new government.
Bulgaria's King Simeon II took restoration on a different path. A child-king from 1943-46, he and his family fled to Spain after the communist takeover. Now 64, he returned in 2001. He formed a political coalition that swept to victory, lifting him to prime minister.
The big success story, says Brooks-Baker, is Alexander Karadjordjevic, who is Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia and Yugoslavia. After a decade of war spawned by dictator Slobodan Milosevic, Serbians asked Alexander to bring his Western skills to his hereditary land.
Good King Alex?
Alexander was born in London in 1945, four years after his family fled the Nazis. English was the first language of this former British army officer educated in the U.S., Switzerland and the U.K. Most importantly, he speaks the language of business. After careers in insurance, banking and construction in the U.S. and U.K., he sits on several boards. His experience makes him the hope of Serbians, he said from his Belgrade palace.
"People are longing for stability and, above all, jobs," he said. "The stability of a constitutional monarchy can be very helpful. Serbians saw the economic strength of the eight major and three minor Western European monarchies and how close they are to their people." He expects the people to decide if they want him as their full-fledged king. "We now have a mixture of tradition, modern politics and in the next few years we'll be looking at constitutional monarchy," he said. He says Serbs have lost their fear of secret police and political repression. "Our democracy is so healthy, people now argue in public." Rebuilding A Wreck But he doesn't dare remove the communist symbols at both official residences. "One must be gentle. Shock therapy won't work," he said. "To put it in simple terms, this for us is the end of the Second World War. But that's the golden opportunity we have been waiting for." He added: "Our problem in moving ahead with privatization is the bureaucracy we inherited from the past. We've suffered sanctions, bombing and isolation. We have 5% of the world's refugees. Bridges and factories are in a shambles. We're a poor country." So poor, in fact, that he pays his own way. "I am financing this operation myself. Having earned my living in the U.S. and Europe has been valuable. I'm acting very much like an ambassador trying to help by bringing investors here."
Kings in waiting need role models. Alexander's is King Juan Carlos of Spain. He's a good choice, says Brooks-Baker. In 1969, dictator Francisco Franco chose Juan Carlos, then in exile, to be future head of state. On Franco's death in 1975, Juan Carlos regained the throne his father fled in 1931, at the start of Spain's Civil War. “The king of Spain has the most power of Europe's monarchs," said Brooks-Baker. "He does the work of a popular president. He keeps pomp and ceremony to a minimum. He's the right kind of monarch for our era." There's something to be said for Europe's monarchies, says political scientist Sigelman, tongue in cheek. "In this country we're missing someone to serve above the normal fray of politics," he said.
Copyright © 1997 Nj.K.V. Princ Aleksandar II