Prodigal king wary of Bulgarian hopes

To some Bulgarians, he is seen as a knight in shining armour; to others, he is simply a relic of a discredited old order. But love him or fear him, all Bulgarians will today have to adjust to the fact that, after almost 50 years away, Simeon Coburg-Gotha - alias King Simeon II - is back.

The now balding and bearded former monarch is due to arrive at Sofia airport this afternoon. Bulgaria's ruling - and very pro-republican - Socialist Party (BSP) has made sure he will not be receiving the red carpet treatment, but Simeon and his Spanish wife, Margarita, are expected to be cheered by hundreds lining the route into the centre of town.

For many, the visit comes as a welcome distraction from Bulgaria's current economic crisis and the almost permanent political squabbling that has marked the six and a half years since the overthrow of communism.

But while Simeon is primarily seen as a symbol of the past, there are many who argue that, at just 58, he would be quite capable of assuming an important role in the future.

"We have no leader in Bulgaria now to inspire and guide us," said Konstantin Halachev of the pro-monarchist Federation Kingdom Bulgaria. "His Majesty alone can unify the country and build a new national consensus."

According to recent opinion polls, more than 20 per cent of the population would support the restoration of the monarchy: hardly a majority, but a substantial increase on the 8 per cent in favour five years ago.

The prospect terrifies the BSP, many of whose members wanted to bar Simeon until he formally renounced his claim to the throne. As one BSP leader put it: "Simeon II still thinks he is Tsar . . . and his coming to Bulgaria is a crime against the republic we have developed."

Simeon - who ascended the throne at the age of six following the mysterious death of his father, Boris III, in 1943 - is coy about his future ambitions.

He insists that technically he is still king as he never abdicated and never accepted the communist-inspired 1946 referendum ordering him out, claiming it was rigged.

A successful businessman who has spent most of his exiled life in Spain, Simeon has sometimes hinted that he could see himself as a constitutional monarch.

However, Simeon has also suggested that he might run for presidency, a post for which, according to polls, more than 40 per cent of Bulgarians think he would be suited.

Supporters say that with his connections, Simeon as head of state would bring Bulgaria closer to the West and help spruce up its tarnished image.

His detractors point out that, quite apart from the fact he has spent all his adult life outside the country, Simeon cannot even be described as a true Bulgarian, descended as he is from a German prince.

As he tours the country, visiting the tomb of his father, Simeon will undoubtedly be trying to get the measure of his former subjects.

He is already wary of being seen as the solution to all the country's problems. "The expectations of the people are tremendous," he said earlier this week. "There is a sort of 'white knight' attitude for many people . . . but in the end the future of the country cannot depend on one person, whoever that person may be."

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