Serbs seek royal revival for an ailing nation

December 24, 2003

By Eric Jansson in Belgrade

The death of a nation is a sad affair.

Slowly but inevitably, inch by inch like a quicksand victim it sinks into despair. Political leaders, business chiefs and ordinary citizens like unco-ordinated parts of a struggling body all try to wriggle loose. But with each futile lunge they disappear deeper into history's rising murk.

Many Serbs, diagnosing the plight of their nation in advance of December 28 parliamentary elections, think they risk going under, as Yugoslavia did before. A mighty tug out of the mud is needed, they say, to escape persistent poverty, industrial slowdown, foreign military occupation in Kosovo and misrule by Belgrade's shamelessly aloof ministerial class.

But for a growing number of Serbs, democratic answers do not suffice. Instead, they seek the return of a king.

Serbia's pre-election rush has brought a series of monarchist surprises.

First, the much-revered head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Pavle, confirmed his support for a re-established Kingdom of Serbia. Communist abolition of the monarchy in 1945 was "tyranny," he declared. Parliamentary monarchies are "the champions of true democracy."

Pavle's declaration, followed by a wave of columns in newspapers and debates on television, has forced Serb monarchism, an idea presumed dead for half a century, back into public consciousness.

A telephone poll taken by state television showed viewers backing re-establishment by a ratio of better than 3-to-1, and politicians are bracing themselves for the impact on election day. One monarchist party running in the elections, promising re-establishment in 2004, is climbing the polls and now stands a good chance of helping run Serbia's next government.

"It is almost impossible to say how many people are for monarchy. It is still a minority, but I think very likely propaganda can change this," says Ognjen Pribicevic, president of the Belgrade-based Centre for South East European Studies.

The man in the middle is no politician but the head of Serbia's royal family, Crown Prince Aleksandar Karadjordjevic.

Born in Claridge's Hotel in London, in a suite Winston Churchill declared Yugoslav territory for the occasion, Mr Karadjordjevic grew up in exile and has only just begun speaking Serbian.

Yet "His Royal Highness Aleksandar II," as Serbia's new royalists call him, may already be top contender for the first return to a Balkan throne since the rise of Communism forced them all out. Simeon II, neighbouring Bulgaria's better-known pretender, has gambled on a return through politics, but as prime minister during difficult times he risks sullying his reputation.

For converts, Mr Karadjordjevic's image has fast evolved from that of a foreign know-nothing to that of a worthy royal, in just two years since the Karadjordjevic family returned to the homeland it left as Nazi Germany invaded. The would-be king puts much of his success down to the entertaining he and his wife Katherine do at the royal residence in Belgrade: 25,000 guests within two years.

But his giant appetite for hobnobbing is not his only advantage. Mr Karadjordjevic, 58, an amiable former British soldier turned businessman, offers disillusioned Serbs two selling points no campaigning politician can claim. One is a clear link to Serbia's pre-Communist era, these days romanticised by a growing number of Serbs who despair of the bleak socialist ruins dominating the landscape of Serbian public life. The other is hope for civil society, outside the ugly democratic arena.

Leaning back contentedly in a wing chair at the royal palace, Belgrade's most stunningly beautiful home, in an interview Mr Karadjordjevic focuses sharply on the feelings of ordinary Serbs. "There's a lack of trust in the system," he says. "The people in the factories, out in the country, are worried. They're waiting for a partner, they're waiting for a visit, they're waiting to understand how do things function in a market economy."

He steers clear of hard stands on divisive issues, such as Nato's occupation of Kosovo. "If I dream, I dream they are part of Serbia," he only says. Serbia should back the creation of an international criminal court, he says. But on co-operation with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, deeply unpopular in Serbia, he fudges: "I condemn all those who commit crimes against humanity."

The crown prince's vagueness on divisive issues works for now, and he insists it would work if he were king. Royals must "respect everyone" across the political spectrum, he says.

But he minces no words on Serbian democracy and the country's "absolutely vital" effort to work toward European Union membership. Democracy must prevail, with or without monarchy. "I am concerned we might end up as the last centre of a sandwich," he says, if Serbia fails in its Herculean effort to catch up with Bulgaria and Romania, joining the bloc in 2007.

The democracy Serbs won three years ago with the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president, has been anything but noble in its infancy. The assassins who murdered Zoran Djindjic, the late prime minister, in March saw to that. Voters themselves have piled on added disappointment, forcing the failure of three consecutive presidential elections.

Mr Karadjordjevic's message to Serbs, if they listen carefully, is that no coronation will rescue them from the mess of young democracy. But if in the meanwhile he encourages some Serbs to feel hope in place of despair, he may help put the lie to the popular myth of the nation's demise.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2003.

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