The Rise of Simeon

The former Bulgarian king's reputation for morality and fairness is attracting voters disenchanted with the corruption of the post-communist era.

The Rise of Simeon

The former Bulgarian king's reputation for morality and fairness is attracting voters disenchanted with the corruption of the post-communist era.

The formation of the National Movement for King Simeon II in April took most Bulgarians by surprise.

In 1989, hardly anybody seriously thought that the exiled former king would ever return to the post-communist, political scene.

At a time when the political options were confined to narrow, Gorbachev-style reforms, no one predicted a possible role for a man who hadn't set foot in his homeland for 43 years.

That's not to say that the royal and what he represented lacked popularity. Bulgarians were attracted by his personality - though not the idea of restoring his dynasty.

The former monarch stands for fairness and morality, both of which were perceived as missing in post-communist Bulgaria. The reformed Left, the new Right and the centrist political parties were equally tainted and disgraced by their past links with Bulgarian communism.

The name Simeon II came to symbolise a nostalgic alternative to the many disappointments experienced by Bulgarians following the collapse of communism. "If he were here," people seemed to say, "we would have had a different life - and the streets would have been maintained too!"

Despite the expulsion of the royal family by the communist government in 1946, the one-time king always spoke of Bulgaria with affection. He belongs to the Orthodox Church and is renowned for his beautifully accented Bulgarian.

Nobody believed, however, that a man of such impeccable reputation would ever dirty his hands with Bulgarian politics.

A number of peculiar parties did emerge after 1989, including the

Christian-Republican Party and the Democratic Constitutional Party. But they were seen mainly as front organisations created by former communists with the sole intention of diluting support for the main opposition party, the United Democratic Forces, UDF.

In the elections of 1995 and 1997, Dimitur Ludzhev, defence minister in the UDF-led government of 1991, and Ahmed Dogan, leader of the Turkish party Movement for Rights and Freedom, MRF, both boasted publicly that they enjoyed the Simeon's blessing.

He neither denied nor confirmed the claims. But they were an early signal that the former monarch might one day become more influential in Bulgaria's volatile politics.

Simeon manoeuvered extremely cautiously compared to other ex royals, who saw in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Balkans an immediate opportunity to re-enter contemporary politics.

Former King Michael of Romania, for example, dashed back to his country in 1990, after the death of dictator Nikolai Ceaucescu, only to be denied an entry permit.

Instead, in 1991, Simeon sent his sister, Maria Louisa, as an envoy to test the mood on the ground. She was followed by the Queen Mother Ioanna a couple of years later.

During the private visits that he subsequently made throughout the 1990s, the royal was careful to keep out of the controversies of the day.

Finally, in 1997, his son Cyril Koburgotsky was appointed economic adviser to President Petar Stoianov, a member of the ruling UDF. Until quite recently, Koburgotsky's public role was purely symbolic, but this too has changed.

According to press reports, the arrival in Sofia last week of a group of 50 bankers and business experts from the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and commercial investors was organised to demonstrate international support for the National Movement's economic programme - and to strengthen the former monarch's international connections.

But not everything is going well for Simeon's party, nor for the former king himself.

Registration of the new party was initially rejected on the grounds that its election papers had been wrongly filed. Amid speculation of a plot against Simeon, the papers were corrected and his party duly registered.

The royal's legendary charisma is being undermined by his evident unenthusiastic responses to pre-election media probing.

Furthermore, there is widespread speculation about the ex-king's relations with the Russians.

Prime Minister Ivan Kostov has worked hard to steer Bulgaria away from Moscow and reconnect it to Europe by gaining membership in the EU and NATO. Russian influence, the government insists, works against the nation's political stability and the international support it so badly needs.

Nonetheless, this has not stopped Simeon taking votes away from parties right across the political spectrum. Even members of the Turkish community, who were persecuted and forced to change their names during the communist era, are now expected to switch their vote and support Simeon instead.

Roussy Rousssev is a freelance journalist in Bulgaria.

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