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Romania Courts Former Monarch

A once vehement anti-royalist, Romania's president extends the hand of friendship to King Michael
By Marian Chiriac

A few dozen people, mainly old men, gathered outside the Elizabeth Palace, a magnificent collocation of fairytale turrets, towers and crenellations. They had mustered to pay their respects to the owner who was paying the first visit to his home in over half a century.

"I came here to greet my King and to tell him that he is more than welcome in his country," said Ilie Moreanu, a retired general and former officer in the royal guards.

Holding up a bunch of white lilies, he said proudly, "They are flowers for people of noble birth and I want to offer them to King Michael."

Later, inside, the eighty-year old ex-monarch, on a three-week visit to the country, walked serenely, with measured but stately gait, back into his old office. A reproduction Murrillo hangs on the wall alongside emblems of Romania's four regions, as they were when the palace was built in 1937. The last time he was there was to sign his abdication 54 years ago.

"A lot of things has changed here, but not just the furniture," mused the royal, the only high-ranking survivor of December 1947 communist coup. Now living in Switzerland, he has made his way since then as a stockbroker, chicken farmer and pilot.

For much of his exile, when Nicolae Ceaucescu held sway over the country, the palace opened its doors to visiting leaders from both East and West. Charles de Gaulle, King Juan Carlos, President Suharto were among the guests put up in the ornate rooms here.

An audience with King Michael was an event that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. But now, President Ion Iliescu can shake hands with the royal, welcoming him back in the name of the "national interest".

What made the event even more remarkable was the fact that Iliescu has stopped King Michael from returning several times during his previous term as president in the early Nineties.

In 1990, he managed to visit the country, but Iliescu deported him soon after his arrival. When the former king returned two years later to tumultuous greeting of around a million Romanians, the president said that under no circumstances was he to come back again. He honoured his word by having him turned back at the border in 1994.

But Iliescu has started to change his tune and decided to make a number of goodwill gestures towards the former monarch. Besides the Elizabeth Palace, he's returned a 17th century castle and supported the passage of a bill providing all former heads of state with an official residence, stipend, personal security and car.

"The president considers the time has come for reconciliation," said his spokeswoman, Corina Cretu. "Romanian society seems to be more tolerant and more open to dialogue and finally more prepared to calmly resolve disputes."

But analysts say that Iliescu's symbolic gesture of reconciliation is just a move designed to improve the government's international credibility. The former monarch still enjoys sympathy in the West as the only surviving head of state from World War II.

"King Michael is well aware that Romania is moving to another key moment: the integration in NATO and EU," said Jonathan Eyal, political analyst at the Royal Studies Institute in London, who believes events this year will be critical to determining Romania's fate over the next decade.

And if welcoming back the old king helps things along then all the better. Last November, an EU report placed the country at the bottom of its list of candidates. It has earned its last place by dint of its dawdling privatisation process, opaque land ownership legislation and unreformed agricultural sector.

But, as witnessed by the modest group welcoming him back to his home, there is no great ground-well of support for an institution most have consigned to the history books.

"I do not believe that the former king is a solution for solving Romania's severe economic and social problems," said Maria Tataru, a middle-aged school teacher. "He is a very a honourable person but represents only the past."

In contrast to neighbouring Bulgaria where the public has shown its support for the decision by recent returnee King Simeon to contest a general election in June.

It's doubtful that Michael will take to the hustings, however. Since rejecting an offer in 1992 to stand as a right-wing opposition candidate, Michael has expressed little interest in returning to high-level politics. Even so, should he suddenly get political ambitions, Iliescu won't be standing in his way. "This is out of my hands, it's up to him," said the president.

Marian Chiriac is an independent journalist based in Bucharest

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