'Pseudo' Royals Return to Serbia

Serbs appear underwhelmed by the recent return of their exiled royal family

'Pseudo' Royals Return to Serbia

Serbs appear underwhelmed by the recent return of their exiled royal family

Wednesday, 25 July, 2001

After 60 years in exile, the Karadjordjevic royal family have returned to live in Belgrade. Events have moved fast. Prompted by President Kostunica, the Yugoslav government decided on July 12 to allow the royals to use the White Palace in the exclusive suburb of Dedinje. Five days later, on his 56th birthday, Crown Prince Alexander was already moving in.

But any hopes - or fears - that the prince will follow the example of the returning Bulgarian royal heir Simeon II and stand for election, appear to be misplaced. The prince told journalists, "My wife and I will not be involved in politics. My wife will help the Serbian people through humanitarian work and I will strive to restore economic prosperity to the country," adding for good measure, "I do not want a referendum on the restoration of the monarchy."

Alexander's father King Petar left the country in 1941 after declaring the capitulation. His son and heir was born in a London hotel room. When Tito came to power during the Second World War, the family were forbidden to return and their property was confiscated by the state. The prince first visited his homeland in 1991 - a visit reluctantly allowed by Slobodan Milosevic, who was then pursuing an openly nationalistic policy. The family's return is the final step in a process which began some months ago, when they were finally issued with Yugoslav passports.

As the royals moved in, a few dozen journalists and neighbours watched. An elderly group, who remembered the Karadjordjevics from their youth, welcomed the heir with flowers, while others in the crowd reminisced about previous residents of this illustrious address - including both Tito and Slobodan Milosevic.

A quick straw poll revealed that while most Belgraders have nothing against the royal family coming back, few think that the monarchy can solve the problems facing the country. "I am not against the Karadjordjevics returning, but I don't want someone who can't speak the Serbian language to rule this country," said one bystander. "I don't think this the right time to change the nature of our state," said another. A third noted that monarchy, by its very nature, is regressive. According to the Institute for Social Sciences in Belgrade, the Serbian population numbers around 16-18 per cent of hard-line monarchists and 30 per cent "latent" royalists - under half of the population.

Politicians seem similarly ambivalent. Although he has expressed sympathy for the Karadjordjevics in the past, Kostunica seems unwilling to publicly express an opinion on the restoration of the monarchy. Pundits in Serbia believe that the president could summon his huge popularity to push the idea through, if he chose to - but for now he appears to be reserving judgement.

Serbian premier and president of the Democratic Party Zoran Djindjic has expressed anti-monarchist sentiments in the past, but did not criticize the federal government decision to allow the family back. The strongest criticism came from the Social-Democratic Union, SDU, one of the minor parties in the ruling coalition. Its leader Zarko Korac, who is deputy prime minister of Serbia, called the Karadjordjevics a "pseudo royal family" and attacked their return as "scandalous", recalling that during the dynasty's rule of Yugoslavia, parliament was suspended in favour of dictatorship. He also claimed that the family obtained their assets through fraud and an abuse of power.

Both the former ruling Socialist Party and Vojislav Seselj's Radical Party are categorically against the return, while the Party of Serbian Unity, founded by former paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic "Arkan" are largely indifferent, although party president Borislav Pelevic noted, "The Karadjordjevics have never done much for the Serbs. It was their idea to unite with the Croats and Slovenes, which brought us so much evil and caused all these wars," adding, "they should have sold their palaces and used the money to pay for pensions."

Only two prominent members of the ruling DOS coalition are open monarchists: Vladan Batic, president of the Demo-Christian party of Serbia and Serbian minister of justice and Velimir Ilic of New Serbia. So what is behind this move, which opponents have denounced as a cheap stunt?

The answer is mainly symbolic. It is no accident that the Karadjordjevics' return was supported by Kostunica at a time when the Montenegrin state leadership headed by Milo Djukanovic are seeking to leave the federation. Before the Second World War, the Karadjordjevic family ruled not only Serbia, but the whole of Yugoslavia. The decision to provide the family with a residence in Belgrade was signed by Zoran Zizic (who is from the Montenegrin opposition Socialist Peoples Party) shortly before he stepped down as federal prime minister. The Crown Prince's return can therefore be interpreted as an attempt to signal that Yugoslavia still has a future.

Moreover, while many ordinary citizens now consider the monarchy to by outmoded and irrelevant, the return of the Karadjordjevics is still a potent gesture in the righting of wrongs committed by the communists. The government has been criticised for not fulfilling earlier promises to rectify injustices committed during the Tito era. By allowing the royal family to reside in the White Palace, even though they will not regain ownership, the authorities are sending a message that they are ready to start a process of denationalising property which the Communists seized from the citizens in 1945.

The Karadjordjevics' progress is being watched carefully by the descendants of other wealthy Serbian families who hope that they may at least regain the right to use property which was confiscated from their ancestors. Those families whose properties, factories or mines were nationalised hope that the promised Law on Denationalisation will be adopted before the Law on Privatisation - otherwise their property, which has belonged to the state for decades, will be sold off to new owners.

Meanwhile, as he told journalists, the Crown Prince's first priority is to sort out bedrooms for his sons, Peter, Filip and Andrej. His dedication to the homeland does not extend to educating his sons there. They remain at boarding school abroad, from where they will soon return for holidays in Belgrade.

Ana Cesic is a journalist with Belgrade daily Glas javnosti

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