When Simeon II, the child king whom Bulgaria’s Communists expelled in 1946 at the age of 9, became the country’s new prime minister last week, he defied the basic principle of the modern monarchy that the king rules but doesn’t reign.
As he swore his oath of allegiance to the republic on Tuesday, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha — his full name — made history by taking back the reins of an East European nation after a democratic election. He pledged to raise living standards and make Bulgaria a member of NATO and the European Union.
“This choice is a turning point in my life, and I’ll do all I can for the country and for every Bulgarian,” Mr. Saxe-Coburg told the parliament in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. “We should turn our geographical position into an economic benefit. Bulgaria is a bridge between East and West, between the southern Europe and the Middle East.”
His party, the National Movement for Simeon II, was formed in April and won half of the 240 seats in the National Assembly on June 17. He will govern in coalition with the ethnic Turk party, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms.
The former king’s sweeping return to power has raised hopes in other Balkan countries that the royal wave can spread and other ex-monarchs can go back to help their people overcome economic hardship and low morale. Descendants to regional thrones, such as King Mihai of Romania, Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia and King Leka of Albania, have become quite visible lately.
But historians, political analysts, economists and other authorities on the region were unanimous in interviews last week that another comeback scenario in Southeast Europe is unlikely.
The main reasons for Mr. Saxe-Coburg’s success are economic, said Vladimir Kvint, professor of management systems and international business at Fordham University, who is also one of the prime minister’s economic advisers.
“The previous government spoke only about macroeconomics and not about the life of the regular people,” he said. “As a result, in the last four years, we saw improvement of economic indicators, but the financial stability didn’t give anything to the regular Bulgarians, many of whom live in poverty. In such cases, people look for miracles and elect unusual leaders.”
Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics at Johns Hopkins University and an adviser to Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov, gave credit to the center-right cabinet of departing Prime Minister Ivan Kostov for achieving impressive macroeconomic indicators but said it failed to connect with voters.
“The problem was that the heavy politicians were in Sofia all the time or traveling to international meetings instead of around the country,” he said. “They were not in touch with the people. A big chunk of the population was sick of all politicians, and now the king has changed the dynamics.”
Mr. Stoyanov also acknowledged Mr. Kostov’s — and his own — inability to “create conditions for small and midsize businesses and to encourage the people who lost their jobs as a result of the closing of money-losing industries to start such businesses, with credits and stimulating programs.”
“We failed to explain to our people — because we didn’t know — that in order to build a society with a market economy and mature democratic institutions, we needed to go through the valley of tears,” he said in an interview earlier this year, in a reference to the plight of ordinary Bulgarians, who live on an average salary of about $120 a month, and the elderly, whose $35 pensions can’t even buy them food.
Widespread corruption was another reason why many Bulgarians turned their back to Mr. Kostov’s otherwise reformist government, Mr. Kvint said. “They decided the king won’t be corrupt because he represents the whole nation.”
A senior Western diplomat in Sofia said: “There has been a tremendous amount of smoke about corruption, but no one has been indicted. It’s the perception of the people that there is a lot of corruption, and the government is not doing a very good job dealing with that perception.”
So it wasn’t hard for someone with Mr. Saxe-Coburg’s stature to win over the majority of the electorate, analysts said. But that wasn’t enough, they added, pointing to the ex-king’s intellect and other personal and leadership qualities.
“He has a very good sense for people and listens carefully but says little,” said Stefan Groueff, biographer of Mr. Saxe-Coburg’s father, King Boris III, and a close friend of the royal family.
In addition to the “historic charm and tradition” the monarchy has in Bulgaria, the new prime minister’s personality distinguishes him from other former monarchs and makes their return much more difficult, said Mr. Groueff, who now lives in New York.
“Another monarch under the same circumstances wouldn’t have succeeded. They are not people of the same measure,” he said, citing Mr. Saxe-Coburg’s “sense of responsibility,” the eight languages he speaks, his business experience and impeccable connections.
During his decades-long exile in Madrid, Mr. Saxe-Coburg maintained good relations with other royals and high-power figures and was a particularly close friend of the late King Hussein of Jordan and King Hassan of Morocco. He also befriended King Juan Carlos of Spain, where monarchy was restored in 1975 after 35 years of military dictatorship.
Mr. Kvint said Mr. Saxe-Coburg prepared for his new role, in one way or another, “all his life.”
But his sister, Princess Maria-Louisa, insisted her brother’s plunge into Bulgarian politics was in no way a grand ambition.
“He’s not scheming or planning,” she said in an interview. “In our family, the word ‘duty’ is number one, so he had the duty to help his people at this critical moment.”
Mr. Kvint, noting that the economic and political conditions, as well as royal personalities, in other Balkan countries are very different from the situation in Bulgaria, said: “I don’t see another monarch coming back.”
Would-be King Leka of Albania, who lives with his mother in South Africa, called a referendum in 1997 to restore the crown but won only a third of the votes. His hopes of a triumphal return are complicated by charges in Albania of carrying an unlicensed firearm.
Romania’s King Mihai (or Michael, as he is known in the West), 79, has done a little better. Though he was deported when he tried to go back for the first time in 1990, the government restored his citizenship in 1996 and entrusted him with promoting Romania’s failed bid for early membership of NATO.
In May, President Ion Iliescu gave him back the former royal palace, apologizing for the way he had been treated since the Communists forced his abdication in 1947.
Yugoslavia’s Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic also has been rehabilitated since the ouster of former President Slobodan Milosevic in October. He received the keys to two ancestral palaces in Belgrade for his 56th birthday earlier this month.
His father was crowned in 1941 but was immediately forced to flee after the Nazi in-vasion. In 1945, he was banned from returning by the Socialist regime.
“My wife and I would like to help our people,” the prince said as he stepped into one of the palaces. “She works in humanitarian aid, and I’m working to boost the country’s economic prosperity.”