The once and future kings?: As Eastern Europe emerges from decades of Communism, Jonathan Eyal argues for a return of its crowned heads

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BORIS YELTSIN's decree, replacing Communist emblems with Russia's crowned double-headed eagle just before the December parliamentary elections conforms to a pattern of a return to historic traditions throughout the former Communist world. The coats of arms of Poland, the Czech republic, Hungary and Croatia all have royal crowns, despite the fact that these countries will remain republics. In Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, however, states in which the return of former sovereigns is still feasible, crowns are conspicuously absent from national symbols; indeed, for much of the civil war in former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia avoided the adoption of a coat of arms altogether. Throughout the Balkans, the possibility of a restoration of monarchy is now discussed with increasing frequency.

Prevailing intellectual fashion may run against royal families, but it is still a fact that no fewer than half of the European Union's member states continue to be monarchies today, a proportion that is likely to be maintained even if the Union is enlarged in 1995. Furthermore, in only half of the existing republics within the Union are presidents directly elected, and in only one - France - does the president exercise real executive power. The idea that a popularly elected head of state is the best expression of a democratic government does not, therefore, conform to practice in Europe.

The most popular European heads of state are, in fact, those who go against the prevailing electoral mood. Belgium's late King Baudouin commanded so much respect principally because he was the only genuine Belgian in a country deeply split along linguistic lines; Germany's President Richard von Weizsacker earned high esteem because he had the courage to face his country's past and confront racist attacks. The decision of Portugal's President Mario Soares to reject a Bill thatwould have eliminated the right of asylum in his country, or of Ireland's Mary Robinson to raise the hitherto taboo topics of abortion and relations with Britain have all proved extremely popular. At a time of a general drift, when politicians are accused of widespread corruption or indifference to the real needs of their nations, having a head of state who is not in constant search of votes is frequently an asset.

Eastern Europe cannot benefit from similar advantages. All former Communist states have constitutions imposed from above in an attempt to teach their people democracy, rather than constitutional contracts created by nations that already believe in democracy's virtues. This does not necessarily mean that the region's democratic experiments will fail, but it does entail a process of trial and error in which some countries have performed better than others. Eastern Europe has parliaments that want to be governments, governments that act as parliaments and presidents who often stray from their formal attributions.

Constitutional arrangements are clearest in the Czech, Slovak and Hungarian republics, where presidents are indirectly elected but exercise mainly honorary duties. In all other states which have opted for direct elections to both parliament and the presidency, there is trouble brewing. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Balkans.

While the attention of the West has concentrated on the war in the former Yugoslavia, the other previously Communist states of the Balkans have stagnated and, to a certain extent, reverted to their traditional patterns of government. In both Bulgaria and Romania parliaments are mere talking shops, parodies of real legislatures. In both states, the government is supposedly formed by 'technocrats', ministers who often claim to represent no political party. As in the days of Communism, prime ministers are nonentities, charged with managing the economy as their predecessors managed the five-year plans. It is the presidents who pull all the real political strings, often in a cabal with the security services. While the real essence of any democracy is the dispersal of power, the Balkans have returned to the personalisation of power.

To be sure, there are great differences between the Balkan states. Bulgaria's president Zhelyu Zhelev is a genuine democrat, while Romania's Ion Iliescu is an old Communist official who still applies his vision of 'socialism with a human face'. Yet in both countries the legitimacy of the current constitutional order is being questioned and will continue to be questioned for some time to come. In both these states, and in Serbia as well, the restoration of monarchs is often seen as the only way out of the current impasse. And, curiously, it is the younger generation that is often most fervently royalist.

Rediscovering a royal past is not only a Balkan phenomenon: Russia has its associations of nobles, many Poles have rushed to order new signet rings, and the grave of Franz- Josef II in Vienna is constantly covered with fresh wreaths laid by ordinary Hungarians. Nevertheless, the electrician from Gdansk is likely to remain Poland's president, and neither the Habsburgs nor the Romanovs are expected to return. The most serious candidates for a restoration of the monarchy in the east are Romania's King Michael, who ruled the country from 1940 until the establishment of the Communist dictatorship in 1947, and Bulgaria's King Simeon II.

Opinion polls suggest that up to a quarter of Romania's population would support Michael's return; his resistance to both fascism and Communism during the Forties is revered; his mother, who saved Jews from extermination during the Holocaust, has recently had her deeds posthumously recognised by Israel.

A master of old Communist salami tactics, Ion Iliescu initially hoped that he would be able to marginalise the king altogether. At first, he deliberately avoided the issue: immediately after the revolution of 1989, the country was renamed simply 'Romania' - ostensibly neither a republic, nor a monarchy. Iliescu then forced through a constitution which not only proclaimed a republic, but also decreed that this form of government can never be changed. Eternity in Romania, though, is a relative concept: in this century alone the country has had seven different constitutions, and all were meant to last forever. Iliescu's present arrangements are unlikely to prove more durable, as the president knows only too well.

Every time Michael, who lives in exile in Switzerland, has tried to get back into Romania, the authorities have used the same tactics: they initially granted a visa, then found some reason for preventing him from going there. Only once, during the 1992 celebrations for Orthodox Easter, was he allowed back and the outcome, at least from Iliescu's viewpoint, was not encouraging: a million people blocked the streets of Bucharest to welcome Michael.

The refusal of the authorities to allow Michael to attendthe celebrations of Romania's union with Transylvania this December transformed what would have been a government-sponsored jamboree into a Ruritarian farce: none of the opposition parties attended the celebrations and the president was booed by some of those present. Iliescu now eschews the king as Dracula fears garlic.

Bulgaria's King Simeon has fared better: the authorities restored his citizenship, and President Zhelyu Zhelev even contrived to meet him in his Spanish exile. Nevertheless, he has yet to visit his homeland and when a member of the Bulgarian royal family did arrive in Sofia immediately after the collapse of Communism, she found that the electricity supply in the capital was switched off just as she was making her way from the airport. The old tricks are always the best.

It is easy to dismiss the prospects for a restoration of the monarchy as romantic day-dreaming. The return of former kings cannot change the situation overnight; it cannot improve local economies. And it is true that, historically, some of the Balkans' monarchs were hardly paragons of virtue. Romania's King Carol scandalised Europe during the Thirties by having an torrid affair with a thoroughly corrupt woman. Yet it has to be said that today similar scandals are more likely to happen in the West than in the East: both Michael and Simeon are good family men, exponents of the sort of 'family values' that every Church of England vicar would be bound to approve.

More important, former monarchs in the area can fulfil a very useful function: they can bestow a constitutional legitimacy that is currently lacking. They offer a connection between the past and the present, that also manages to bypass existing nationalist rabble-rousers.

Their presence could assure local opposition parties that Communism cannot return, while also, paradoxically, giving former Communists the best protection against retribution. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a mixture of elected and unelected leaders provides all Europe with stability and national legitimacy, a blend between cherished traditions and necessary historic continuity. The return of the Balkan monarchs might have a further result closer to home: it could allow their Western European cousins to claim that they are back in business, too.

(Photograph omitted)

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