June 21, 2001

The Return of Kings

At first glance, it seems the Balkans are no better off this week than last. In Macedonia, defiant and exuberant UCK bandits proclaim willingness to reach "Bulgaria and Athens" if only they had some tanks, while one half of the government is negotiating with the other the terms of eventual NATO occupation they both desire – for different reasons.

In Montenegro, President Djukanovic is finally facing the fate of servants whose services are no longer needed. Having failed to secure a majority for secession, he is now sinking into the mire of accusations involving corruption, smuggling and other criminal conduct. In Serbia, the government has failed yet again to ram an extradition bill through the Parliament, blocked by their coalition partners from a Montenegro party opposed to Djukanovic. Slobodan Milosevic is still in jail, though the investigation against him ended Monday with no evidence of wrongdoing available to the public.

Bulgaria, however, has done something that might yet signal a fundamental change in Balkan politics. After suffering for four years under a corrupt, incompetent regime fanatically subservient to NATO and the West, Bulgarians voted this weekend for a monarch their Communist government exiled 55 years ago.


Simeon II von Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was overthrown by Stalin's proxies in 1946, at the age of nine. He shared this fate with Romania's Michael I (ex. 1948) and Petar II (ex. 1946) of Yugoslavia. Since the collapse of Communism in 1989, no royal has managed to regain their status, and few have even been allowed back into their countries. Eager to dismiss other legacies of Communism – save the absolute power to plunder the people through the powerful apparatus of the state – the new Balkan governments continued to passionately oppose royal families. It took Simeon II to show that this opposition is largely motivated by fear of competition, not dedication to republican values.

The revenant king's popularity can be gauged by his party's meteoric rise to power. When he was banned from running for president by residency requirements of the jealous regime, he registered a political party – National Movement for Bulgaria – and entered the parliamentary race. This was two months ago. Even then, his party's was cheered by jubilant crowds of Bulgarians, hopeful that the returning royal would put an end to twelve years of post-Communist misery. For, though life in Communist Bulgaria was no picnic, it paled in comparison with what came afterwards. Rising prices, increased joblessness, crime and corruption, destruction of the nation's economy and its sale to the lowest bidder by compliant authorities have all made Bulgaria's outlook one of the bleakest in the Balkans – worse off than the bombed and sanctioned Serbia! – and "democracy" a dirty word. Simeon II's job is to change all that, and the landslide victory has given him all the necessary legitimacy.

One thing marring Simeon's triumph, of course, is that Bulgaria is still a republic. He does not seem in a particular rush to change that, yet it is highly unlikely he would refuse a crown if offered. Such an occurrence would be a good thing, both for Bulgaria and for the Balkans in general.


For a libertarian to advocate a return to monarchy is not as insane as imagining the Founding Fathers singing praises to George III. It is worth recalling that even they considered the monarch to rule by consent – which is exactly what a constitutional, limited monarchy entails.

In a constitutional monarchy, there is a clear distinction between the head of government (the chief executive) and the head of state (president), which is largely a ceremonial job. Some countries – Germany and Israel, for example – have ceremonial presidents that serve this capacity. It is only in the United States that the distinction between ceremonial and executive disappears. Given the imperial nature of the modern American presidency, that can hardly be taken as a compelling cause for republicanism.

Europe, where limited monarchies were invented in ancient times and reinvented in the 19th century, shows many examples of stable, civilized societies with a crowned head of state: Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain and the Netherlands come to mind. The United Kingdom is technically not a constitutional monarchy, but since the Magna Carta (1215), the kings and queens of England have agreed in principle to rule with consent of their subjects.


Abolishing established monarchies, however repressive, has proven to be a recipe for dictatorship and tyranny. Two most notable examples of passage from kingdom to Empire via republicanism are ancient Athens and ancient Rome, both of which have had enormous influence on Western civilization – culturally as well as politically. England and France experimented with regicidal republics in the 17th and 18th century, in both cases with lethal results for many of their inhabitants. While Oliver Cromwell's republic only served to convince the English of the benefits of royalty, the French republic gave birth to Napoleon Bonaparte's empire.

More modern examples include Spain, which overthrew the monarchy in 1931, only to fall to general Franco's fascists in 1939. Deprived of the Hohenzollern Kaiser in 1919 and forced to experiment with a feeble Weimar republic, Germany became easy prey for Adolf Hitler in 1933.

Monarchies, it turns out, are stable systems that on average tend to work fairly well. When they do slip into tyranny, replacing the head that wears the crown has proven a lot less disruptive than renouncing the crown itself.


Fine for Western Europe, one might say, but what does any of this have to do with the Balkans?

First of all, people of the Balkans have a historical attachment to monarchies. Croats and Slovenes were ruled by the Austrian Hapsburgs for centuries, with little or no objections to the idea of monarchy. Upon their independence, Greece (1821), Romania (1859) and Bulgaria (1879) imported foreign royalty – mostly Germans. This was not uncommon; indeed, the British have been ruled by a Hannoverian dynasty since the mid-1700s; Russia's Romanovs were anchored in power by Catherine the Great, herself a German. So, Romania's Hohenzollern-Sigmaringens (1859-1948), Bulgaria's Saxe-Coburg-Gothas (1887-1946) and Greece's Bavarian and Danish dynasties (abolished 1974) have been a part and parcel of those nation's modern histories.

Serbia had its own royalty – two dynasties, no less. The Obrenovic family dominated in the late 1800s, only to be overthrown amid scandals and despotism. The Karadjordjevic (Karageorgevich) dynasty succeeded to the throne in 1903. Aleksandar I Karadjordjevic ruled Yugoslavia (1919-1934), and his infant son, Petar II, reigned for a grand total of nine days in 1941, before Nazi Germany turned Yugoslavia into a cinder. Petar's son, Crown Prince Aleksandar II, recently decided to return to Serbia, after the new government restored his family's property rights (taken away by the Communists in 1945).

Even Montenegro had a royal family. Nikola I Petrovic, a descendant of bishop, prince and poet Njegos, reigned as king from 1910 to 1919, when Montenegro joined Serbia under the Karadjordjevic crown.

It is obvious that monarchies have been a fact of life in the Balkans much longer than Communism and republicanism combined. True, they have had their share of bad times. Serbs have few kind words for King Milan Obrenovic, for example, or his son Aleksandar I (whom his royal guards hacked to death with sabers after he nearly ruined the country). The second Karadjordjevic king, also named Aleksandar, was a generally disagreeable person, who spent the last five years of his reign enforcing a brutal dictatorship. Only his murder in 1934, at the hands of a Bulgarian mercenary acting on behalf of Croatia's fascist separatists ("Ustashe"), ensured him martyrdom and a fond remembrance. On the other hand, his father Petar I, was the living example of a gentle, beloved, "people" king.


After 1989, Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia perpetuated the pseudo-republican system of government practiced by their Communist rulers. As part of the campaign to legitimize their rule and eradicate any opposition, Communists had paid close attention to systematically destroying the institutions of monarchy in all three countries, demonizing the exiled kings and reinterpreting their reign as something out of the Dark Ages. Of course, this was the case with all pre-Communist history. Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, all of which had been republics before World War Two, were similarly repressed. Yet the experience of the past 12 years clearly shows that these four former republics (Czechs and Slovaks separated in a 1992 "velvet divorce") have had a much better transition from Communism than any of the former monarchies that tried to become republics with no experience whatsoever.

Given the nature of regimes that succeeded Communism in Bulgaria, Romania and the Yugoslav states, one is tempted to wonder if those regimes deliberately avoided the restoration of monarchy for fear of competition. The "republics" which they ran were marked with all the worst traits of their Communist predecessors – corruption, utter lack of accountability, personal politics and woeful mismanagement of state affairs. As a system of government, Communism had been akin to feudalism, with its system of patronage and virtual serfdom to the state. Leaders of pseudo-republics came to see themselves through definitions the Communists had set out, predictably failing to reform or revitalize their states. The crushing poverty and misery in Serbia can – and should – be blamed on the wars of Yugoslav secession and succession, but the even worse conditions across its eastern and northeastern border have no such excuse.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

The Return of Kings

Meditations On The Edge Of The Abyss


Terms of Betrayal

Presevo – A False Victory

The Balkans: Land of Delusions

Enemies at the Gates

ICG’s Blueprint for Destruction

Kosovo: Between Death and Taxes

Madness in the Mountains: Montenegro's Looming Secession

A House Divided


Empire at the Gates

Macedonian Maelstrom

Pax Americana

The Fourth Balkan War

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana’s Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

Bandits on the Border

It's the Spelling, Stupid

Zoran Djindjic: Serbia's Richard III

Wheels of Injustice

The Tragedy of Bosnia

The Suspended Castle

Hand Of The Empire: Decision in Kosovo

Introduction: The Balkans Babylon

ITN: Case Closed


A restored monarchy, symbolizing a return to the roots of these countries' political history, is likely to help stabilize their governments and prevent them from falling into the hands of wannabe-kings every four or five years, depending on the electoral cycle. Bulgarians, Romanians and Serbs would do well to recall Spain's rapid recovery and stabilization since Juan Carlos became king following the Bourbon restoration, after the death of Generalissimo Franco and the collapse of his fascist regime in 1975.

Much like Simeon II, the royal houses of Serbia and Romania claim not to have any pretenses to the throne – yet are very unlikely to refuse the crown if it is offered. While Romania is still ruled by a former Communist apparatchik Ion Iliescu, Yugoslavia might be the next candidate for a royal comeback.

The current president of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica, has no great desire to be an eternal "president" like Milosevic, or much less the hereditary "president," like the Hussein or Assad dynasties in Iraq and Syria. As a traditionalist, he is more favorable to the idea of restored constitutional monarchy than the Marxist scholar Djindjic. Yugoslavia's federation is not functional. The task of reforming it is daunting and nearly impossible, given the imbalance between Montenegro (pop. 600,000) and Serbia (pop. 9 million). Some sort of royal union, British-style, between Serbia and Montenegro might yet be the best model for a new state – as long as the new king is more akin in character to Petar I Karadjordjevic and less to his son Aleksandar, father of the current Crown Prince. This may seem ironic at a time when many Brits themselves clamor for abolition of the Crown. Then again, many of them are Blairites partial to the Union of European Socialist Republics.

Romania and Bulgaria have already failed to improve their people's lot following a perverted republican model with no root in either country's history. Restoring constitutional monarchies would help start the national debate on the very nature of their states, which never took place in the post-Communist euphoria of 1989 onward. Serbia and Montenegro face the same painful reality. How Albania would fare under a monarch is anybody's guess, but a new form of government might just help it become a respectable country.


However odd this might sound, restoring constitutional monarchies would be the best thing that happened to the cause of freedom in the Balkans for over a century. Their constitutional character, most of all, would mark a final departure from tyrannical, Communist-style "kleptocracies" of the past decade, and help guarantee individual rights and liberties within a system that knows its limitations. Moreover, it would greatly help boost these countries' reeling national identities, overwhelmed as they are by globalist, neo-liberal and socialist drivel, with no time to recover from mental abuses of Communism.

As Crown Prince Aleksandar of Yugoslavia put it, "The monarchy provides unity, the continuity and the stability of the state." By building their societies on the two traditional pillars of crown and faith, Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia (or whatever the union of Serbia and Montenegro is called) would rediscover their soul and regain self-confidence. Only then can they build a society where liberty is more cherished than thuggery.

Denying the historical and cultural legacy of monarchies, as much a part of these people as their faith or language, effectively means denial of their heritage – as well as the willing acknowledgment that the Communists were right.

Simeon II von Saxe-Coburg-Gotha has opened the door. It is up to Michael I Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen and Aleksandar II Karadjordjevic to follow.

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