Monarchy…Unemployed? The curious case of former ruling houses in the Balkans6 min read

 In Analysis, Politics, Southeastern Europe
‘The whole world is in revolt. Soon there will be only five Kings left—the King of England, the King of Spades, the King of Clubs, the King of Hearts, and the King of Diamonds.’ So King Farouk of Egypt is alleged to have quipped shortly before his overthrow in 1952. Whilst this prediction has not quite been realised, the 20th Century was not kind to the institution of monarchy. In South-Eastern Europe, those monarchs who survived the collapse of empires in 1918 were quickly dealt a coup-de-grace after the post-WW2 communist takeover. 

However, since the fall of Communism thirty years ago, South-Eastern Europe has borne witness to a strange phenomenon – the rehabilitation of Royal Houses within modern republics. This has gone beyond the adoption of historical leaders to the national pantheon; extant members of former ruling houses have seen their citizenship and property restored, and most significantly, have been granted a political and cultural position within modern society. 

The return of a hero

On 16 December 2017, thousands of people came out onto the streets to mourn a king considered the most admired and trusted political leader, in a country suspicious of their political class. A state funeral was held, attended by heads of state, with all the pomp and ceremony expected of European Royalty. Yet this was not London, this was not even a monarchy, this was the modern Republic of Romania. King Michael had been forced to abdicate in 1947 and had been in exile until 1996, yet the scenes on the streets of Bucharest in 2017 suggest a figure held in great regard by his people. 

One might isolate Michael as an exception – he was after all a hero of the Second World War, whose coup against the Nazi Allied government of Ion Antonescu in 1944, gained him international respect, even being awarded the Order of Victory by Joseph Stalin. However, Romania is not alone in this phenomenon. Serbia, Bulgaria, and Albania have all seen their former Royal houses return to the country, moving into palaces restored for them by post-Communist restitution settlements. Even after the death of Michael, his heir Margareta has continued to maintain an unofficial role as a political and charitable emissary in Romania from her residence in the Elisabeta Palace.  

These are more than simple acts of restitution; the official status of the monarchy has entered the legislation of the modern republics. Montenegro recognised an official role for the Njegoš-Petrović dynasty in 2011, complete with a new official residence and state salaries, although it has stopped short of restoring the monarchy. A similar bill was proposed in the Romanian Parliament in 2015, officially recognising the role of the former ruling house, an act much hastened due to the decline in health of King Michael. However, it was eventually dropped after many years of wrangling in 2018. With all this in mind, does support and interest for the monarchy have wider appeal across the Balkans?  

Celebrities or Politicians

Marriages and royal events are often broadcast nationally, to growing interest both inside and outside Balkan countries. Court intrigues and scandals are followed with interest in gossip columns. Even in Serbia, which has so far resisted the more official recognitions of Romania and Montenegro, the marriage of Prince Philip to Princess Danica in 2017 attracted a lot of attention and was broadcast live on Serbian television. This is partly due to the large attendance of royalty from extant monarchies such as Spain and Sweden but also goes to highlight the enduring importance of the Karađorđević dynasty, despite their lack of an official role.

1997 saw Albania become the only country in the region to hold a referendum on the restoration of the monarchy, with a third of voters coming out in favour of Leka II. Not a resounding victory, but for a country that has spent years under the totalitarian rule of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, with a high degree of overall political apathy, a third of the vote suggests more than a small minority of supporters. In Romania, support for a similar referendum to be held was held by 70% of respondents.

In Bulgaria, the former Tsar Simeon II entered the political realm directly upon his return to Bulgaria, successfully standing for election and becoming Prime Minister from 2001 to 2005. Part of Simeon’s appeal to the Bulgarian electorate was his royal status and the almost religious devotion to him amongst some of his supporters, who saw the former monarch as the messiah’ to save them from years of economic mismanagement.

However, it was always going to be a gamble, Simeon’s promise to make conditions for everyday people ‘visibly better’ within 800 days was overly ambitious. Ultimately the experiment of being king-Prime Minister resulted in crushing disappointment for most Bulgarians, with Simeon unable to deliver on his promises and a sense of business as usual; unable to rid Bulgaria’s political spheres of corruption. The failure of Simeon’s government has perhaps made the ‘… idea of bringing former monarchs back to save the Balkans … dead for good’, yet Simeon and his counterparts remain. 

Still welcome? 

The return of the royal houses to Balkan countries has not been without criticism or a degree of reluctance. Successive post-Communist governments were so nervous of King Michael’s return that they sent police to escort him out of the country in 1990. In 1992 a brief Easter visit attracted such crowds that all future visits were banned until 1997 when his citizenship was restored. Similarly in Bulgaria, Simeon’s return in 1996 saw large crowds gather calling ‘we want our King’, however, his spell as Prime Minister and high-profile campaigns to regain luxury property when the country has experienced such economic difficulty may have dented this Royal fervour. Indeed, in 2018 the then Bulgarian government moved to evict Simeon from his residence in the Vrana Palace. In 2020, the Supreme Court of Cassation was asked by the government to overturn its own 1998 verdict, returning the property to Simeon and his family. Both moves ultimately failed but they highlight the ongoing yo-yoing legal status of the royal family. 

The issue of relevance is also questionable, especially as the generation who remembered the monarchies of the Balkans slowly dies off. Is the new generation prepared to see the relevance of an institution last seen over seventy years ago? To be governed by families who often have spent all of their lives abroad, in a lifestyle of which few commoners could dream?. As one Albanian newspaper quipped of the return of Leka II – …the ‘king has come closer to his people, but the monarchy is still too far from them.’ 

A 21st Century Monarchy?  

Despite these arguments, the relationship between monarchy and their former realms endures. The fascination seems to extend beyond mere celebrity gazing, as concrete political steps towards integrating the monarchy within the modern state have been made in some countries. Conversely, real opposition to such steps, suggests they are a still-potent political force.

With former royal houses in the Balkans quietly and unofficially performing a similar role to their regnant cousins in the UK and Denmark, could constitutional monarchy offer a degree of stability, tradition and glamour to a region which is often apathetic towards their political class? Would a restoration be a good thing? It has happened before, in Spain and Cambodia, but is this likely in the modern Balkans? These are questions unlikely to be resolved in the short-term but with the question of restoration continuing to be raised, both nationally and internationally, the chance remains. With former Balkan royal families continuing to make international headlines in 2020, maybe the question should not only be if monarchy should be restored but if it has ever been fully unemployed?  

Featured image: King Michael I of Romania / Teet Ottin
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