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The failure to restore the monarchy in post-communist Bulgaria.


Despite sharp elite disagreements about the timing and nature of the constituent process, Bulgaria was the first country in post-Communist Europe to reach a constitutional settlement, setting this southeast European nation on a rocky course of political and economic reforms. Under its new constitution, adopted on 12 July 1991, Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic in which all legislative power is vested in a unicameral National Assembly, consisting of 240 deputies elected for four years by universal adult suffrage. The President of the Republic is a largely ceremonial head of state who is directly elected by the voters to a five-year term and can serve only two consecutive terms in office. The Council of Ministers, the highest organ of the executive branch, is approved by and responsible to the National Assembly. The Council is headed by a Prime Minister elected by the legislative majority. The judiciary is constitutionally independent from the executive and legislative branches of government. Its top bodies are a Supreme Court, the highest court of appeals in the country, and a Constitutional Court with powers of judicial review.

But the adoption of a new constitution was accompanied by serious political opposition and heated controversy. There was strong resistance by many members of the anti-Communist minority in the constituent Grand National Assembly (GNA), who did not want the new fundamental law to be shaped by what they called the "temporary majority" of the ex-Communist Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). They called for early dissolution of the constitution-writing Assembly popularly elected in June 1990 and the holding of a new GNA election. The monarchists within the oppositional and fervently anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) alliance rejected the new basic charter because it retained the republican form of government, while they preferred a return to the Turnovo Constitution of 1879, which had declared Bulgaria a constitutional kingdom. They believed that new elections could produce a constituent Assembly more favorable to the idea of reinstating the monarchy, which had been abolished in 1946.

However, the two largest SDS member parties, the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party (BSDP) and the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BZNS)-Nikola Petkov, announced the formation of a splinter faction, the SDS-Center, which opposed the attempts of the "rightist and monarchist forces" to divert the GNA from its constitutional work. (1) The new coalition was particularly critical of "the emerging monarchist right wing" in the SDS (2), declaring that "it would be a crime to demand the dissolving of parliament before it has adopted the constitution (3)." The SDS-Center leaders were convinced that the parties calling for the dissolution of the GNA before the adoption of the new constitution were directly manipulated by the Madrid-based King Simeon II of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and that their ultimate goal was the restoration of the monarchy and the enthronement of the exiled monarch. Other centrist SDS member parties formed another splinter group, the SDS-Liberals, which declared its support for the pro-republican stand of the SDS-Center. The anti-Communist opposition had in effect become split between opposing factions with conflicting views about the nature of the new constitution and whether Bulgaria should have a republican or monarchical form of government (4). The republican-versus-monarchist division added a major new dimension to the country's ideological cleavages and deep partisan animosities.

The controversial attempt by radical SDS deputies to disrupt the constituent work of the GNA-first by a parliamentary walkout and then by a last-minute hunger strike-failed, but the divisive republic-versus-monarchy issue remained open-ended for a long time. Some 81 of the 400 GNA deputies did not vote in favor of the 1991 basic law, nor was it subsequently approved in any national referendum. The abstention of the opposing SDS deputies was motivated at least in part by their fundamental opposition to the constitutional clauses defining Bulgaria as a parliamentary republic.

With the adoption of the 1991 constitution, whose amendment clauses (Chapter Nine) make it very difficult to revise the republican form of the Bulgarian government, the restoration of the monarchy seemed like an idea consigned to the past. This was until Simeon II, who had never abdicated the throne, became the first exiled monarch to return to his post-Communist homeland as a popularly elected head of government. He could not have become a constitutional monarch so easily, given the legislative supermajority that is required to amend the Constitution and the fact that over 80% of Bulgarians say that they are in favor of their country remaining a republic, but in 2001 his chances of returning to the throne looked far better than any of the other would-be monarchs of Central, Eastern or Southeastern Europe (5).

A constitutional monarchy has not been contemplated as a serious institutional choice for post-Communist Europe's constitutional design despite the fact that many of these transitional countries were monarchies in their pre-Communist past and that seven out of the current members of the European Union (EU)-which Bulgaria joined in 2007-are constitutional monarchies (the United Kingdom, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg).

Given the total disillusionment of most Bulgarians with the post-Communist parties and politicians, Simeon's chances of regaining the throne appeared to be quite significant in June 2001, when his National Movement for Simeon II (NDSII) unexpectedly won the general election. But his party, which controlled both the national legislature and the cabinet government in 2001-2005 and initially elicited very strong popular support, failed to capitalize on the discontent of the mass public and became embroiled in a series of serious missteps and scandals, which destroyed the credibility of the prime-minister-king and led to his defeat in the June 2005 elections. As a result of that election, NDSII became the junior partner in a three-party coalition cabinet with the Socialists and the ethnic Turk-dominated Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), whose failing policies have further undermined the ex-King's popularity. But what seems to have put an end once and for all to the very idea of restoring the monarchy in post-Communist Bulgaria is, paradoxically enough, the former monarch's own controversial personality and actions.

The Monarchy-versus-Republic Controversy

There were significant political forces in post-Communist Bulgaria, especially the monarchists and some of the conservative parties, which challenged the present republican form of government as illegitimate and imposed illegally by the Communists. A national referendum held on 8 September 1946 abolished the monarchy in favor of a people's republic, leading to the exile of the Italian-born Queen Joanna of Savoy and her adolescent son, Simeon II, who had been crowned at the age of six in 1943 after the sudden death of his father, King Boris III. Discredited by its subversion of the constitution at home and its wartime alliance with Hitler, the monarchy was genuinely unpopular, but the referendum results were so skewed (85.18% voted for a people's republic and only 3.89% for the monarchy) that fraud was widely suspected (6).

Soon after the fall of Communist leader Todor Zhivkov on November 10, 1989, monarchist groups began campaigning for the return of Bulgaria's number one political emigre, the exiled former king, and for a plebiscite on whether Bulgaria should be a republic or a monarchy (7). The prevailing opinion among the anti-Communist parties was that the Communist regime had manipulated the 1946 referendum abolishing the monarchy and many of them rejected the legality of its results. The monarchists and some conservative parties within the oppositional SDS alliance publicly declared their adherence to the Turnovo Constitution of 1879 and demanded the country's reversion to monarchism. Written by Imperial Russia and the other Great Powers at the Berlin Congress of 1878 and modeled on the Belgian constitution of 1830, the Turnovo Constitution defined Bulgaria as a constitutional monarchy, in which the crowned head of state had the limited prerogatives assigned to rulers of constitutional monarchies such as the United Kingdom or Belgium. Constitutionally, principal power in the government resided in a unicameral parliament, the National Assembly. But since the prime minister and the cabinet depended on the monarch's will rather than the confidence of parliament, the National Assembly wielded only nominal power over the executive and had relatively minor influence on government decision-making. Royal supremacy was aided by a weak legal framework for legislative control over the crown, allowing Simeon's grand-father, the German-born Prince Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, to establish a strong personal regime and rule autocratically between 1887 and 1918 in spite of the liberal spirit of the constitution (8).

While its historical record is hardly inspiring, the Turnovo Constitution still presented the post-Communist political elite recruited through the June 1990 founding election with the option of reviving the monarchy. From his exile in Madrid, Simeon was openly encouraging the restoration efforts of the royalist groups by advertising the "advantages" of constitutional monarchy over the parliamentary republic declared by the 1991 constitution:
   That the new Constitution has been greeted
   with mixed feelings-to put it mildly-speaks
   for itself. I have no degree in constitutional
   law, so I make no pronouncement, but the
   Turnovo Constitution is more liberal than this
   first attempt [of Bulgaria] to become a state
   of law. Constitutions in any democracy may
   be amended, so this is the line along which
   our legislators should proceed. As far as
   political parties are concerned, the King in a
   constitutional monarchy can be of exceptional
   assistance to guarantee and foster political
   life by acting as a moderator.... Particularly in
   such a transitional period as this, I feel that
   no other democratic system can replace the
   advantages of monarchy, its alternatives, and
   its elasticity. Theory aside, in my own case I
   have had Western upbringing ... I have the
   advantage of being related to all the
   European royal families, and with these connections
   monarchy in Bulgaria stands an
   even better chance. National unity, reconciliation,
   and a new sense of dignity are obvious
   elements in a constitutional kingdom.... I
   shall not reiterate the advantages of monarchy,
   which coincide with what I can achieve,
   provided my people give me a chance (9).

From the beginning, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP), later renamed the Socialist Party, was vehemently opposed to the idea of reinstating the abolished monarchy. Not only did the post-Zhivkov Communist cabinet insist on the validity of the 1946 vote, but an official government statement claimed that there was no room for royalist ideas in republican Bulgaria and that the king's ambition for a role in national politics was "unacceptable (10)."

The stage was set for political confrontation over this major constitutional issue. Bulgaria has been often described as the most favorably inclined to the idea of reinstating the monarchical institution among the countries of post-Communist Europe that were formerly monarchies. Several explanations have been offered for the sudden popularity of the former king (11). First of all, the Communist regime is believed to have failed in erasing the nation's largely positive memory of his father, King Boris III, who died relatively young in August 1943, thus escaping full responsibility for the wartime catastrophe. Simeon II, who had long lived in exile in Madrid, initially made a very favorable impression on the Bulgarian public. Until his final return to Bulgaria in April 2001, he was the only exiled king of an ex-Communist nation to carry a regular travel passport and ID card issued by his country's Communist government. The prestige and popularity of the ex-monarch were also a function of the public's discontent with the disastrous economic downturn, the breakdown of law and order, and the chaotic politics of the transition period (12). Frustrated with the privations and hardships of the transition, many Bulgarians pinned their hopes on Simeon as a kind of a savior to lead their country out of its desperate socio-economic situation.

Monarchical parties and movements, which were skillfully campaigning for the king's return, gained popularity in the early transition period (13). Among the other parties, however, opinions on the matter were divided. Supporters of Simeon II pointed to the very constructive role which King Juan Carlos I had played in Spain's democratization as well as to Simeon's own personal qualities as a successful businessman with very close ties to the Spanish throne and with commendable proficiency in the Bulgarian language. But republicanism also continued to enjoy broad support, not only among the Socialists, but also among the Social Democrats and the Agrarians, two traditionally anti-monarchist parties. Public opinion polls repeatedly indicated that, while the king himself was widely respected, a clear majority of the population was not prepared to welcome back the monarchy as a national institution, even though pro-monarchist sentiment at the time was stronger in Bulgaria than anywhere else in post-Communist Europe, according to the reputable New Democracies Barometer surveys (14). President Zheliu Zhelev (1990-1996), the first post-Communist head of state, also supported the republican form of government, insisting that historically the monarchy had been "imposed from abroad (15)." In contrast to the conservative parties, he and other centrist SDS leaders recognized the validity of the 1946 decision in favor of the republic and opposed the resurrection of the abolished monarchy, given its discredited historical record:
   Some people maintain that the 1946 referendum
   was illegal because it was held under
   undemocratic conditions. Therefore, it must
   be repealed now and the Turnovo
   Constitution should be restored, together
   with the monarchy.... But I am absolutely
   sure that, despite all manipulations and falsifications
   which, no doubt, accompanied it,
   the 1946 referendum reflected the will of
   the vast majority of the Bulgarian people.
   And this is easily understandable ... since the
   Coburg-Gotha dynasty was responsible for
   the two national catastrophes of 1913 and
   1918, then it plunged Bulgaria in a third
   national catastrophe by siding with the Axis
   Powers during the last world war. It was also
   involved in coups d'etat, autocratic government,
   political assassinations, violations of
   the Turnovo Constitution, and so on. I am
   not surprised that immediately after the war
   Bulgarians-like the Italians, the Romanians
   and the Hungarians-placed their hopes for a
   better and more democratic future on the
   republican form of government (16).

At the same time Zhelev conceded that it was entirely up to the elected constituent assembly to decide what form of government Bulgaria would take (17). He suggested that the question of the monarchy should be decided by a new referendum--a proposal which was initially eagerly embraced by the monarchists.

The first article of the new constitution states that "Bulgaria shall be a republic with a parliamentary form of government," which is why the pro-monarchist deputies strongly objected to its adoption. For this reason the Assembly decided to settle the monarchy-versus-republic dilemma once and for all by means of a national referendum scheduled for 6 July 1991. The referendum date had been proposed by Dr. Petar Dertliev, the staunchly anti-monarchist BSDP leader and architect of the new Constitution, and was backed by BZNS-Nikola Petkov and the BSP, both of which believed that a new referendum would not reverse the 1946 vote. The idea of resolving the issue of the monarchy by means of a plebiscite also seemed to correspond to the wishes of Simeon himself, who had previously declared that he was willing to return to Bulgaria only if the nation wanted him back (18).

But in the weeks following this decision, public opinion, as reflected in mass surveys, appeared mostly opposed to a return of the monarchy. Sample polls showed that republicanism was much more deeply rooted in Bulgaria's political culture than pro-monarchist sentiments, since many interviewed Bulgarians stated that having an unelected and dynastic monarch as head of state would be undemocratic. According to an opinion poll taken in late May 1991, 78% of the respondents favored a republican form of government, while only 8% supported the monarchy (19). Sensing inevitable defeat given the prevailing public mood, the monarchist parties suddenly rejected the idea of having a referendum at this time, complaining that it had been scheduled too soon for the exiled king to organize an effective nationwide campaign in his favor. Before it could take place, the referendum was put to a new parliamentary vote and rescinded by the GNA, putting this controversial issue to rest, at least for the time being.

Reactions to the cancellation of the referendum confirmed that the idea of resurrecting the monarchy lacked national consensus. President Zhelev praised the Assembly for reversing a decision, which, he complained, "put in question legitimately elected institutions so lightheartedly." Dr. Petar Dertliev, the widely respected "father" of the new Constitution, declared triumphantly that there could be no doubt now about the legitimacy of the republic since "all those who wanted a referendum have now recanted (20)." Simeon announced from Madrid that he was glad that "the untimely and unnecessary referendum" had been revoked (21). Having realized that their cause lacked mass appeal, the monarchists suspended their efforts to bring back the monarchy through a referendum.

But the controversy over the monarchy was far from over. Nearly sixty parties and organizations with monarchist platforms were still seeking to repeal the 1946 referendum, restore the 1879 Turnovo Constitution, and put the exiled king back on the throne. The most significant among them were the Kingdom of Bulgaria Federation and the Movement of United Monarchists. Many prominent UDF politicians also supported the monarchy (22). For example, the SDS-led cabinet of Prime Minister Ivan Kostov (1997-2001) officially asked the Constitutional Court to repeal the 1946 referendum, claiming that its results were rigged by the Communist regime. Had it been successful, such a step could have opened the way for the legal restoration of the monarchy. President Petar Stoyanov (1996-2001) of the SDS declared that as head of state he favored a popular vote on reintroducing the monarchy, because the Turnovo Constitution was abolished when Bulgaria was under the occupation of a foreign military power.

In spite of the 1991 referendum setback, Simeon did not give up his ambition to return to Bulgaria as king. He continued to insist that a constitutional monarchy was the best form of government for a country in transition like Bulgaria. That the ex-king was one of the most popular political figures among Bulgarians was confirmed by his unofficial trip to Bulgaria in May-June 1996 at the invitation of 101 leading Bulgarian intellectuals. His triumphant private visit demonstrated that the ex-monarch enjoyed widespread popularity not only among the mass public, but also among top politicians, many of whom, including then-President Zhelev, sought to meet privately with him. As many as half a million people turned out to welcome the king on his arrival in Sofia on May 26. Opinion polls suggested that while less than 20% of Bulgarians wanted the monarchy restored, some 40% wished the ex-monarch to play an important political role in national affairs, especially at a time when Bulgaria was in the midst of its worst post-Communist economic debacle brought on by the discredited policies of Socialist Prime Minister Zhan Videnov (1994-1997).

During his 1996 visit to Bulgaria, Simeon II boldly declared that he did not recognize the results of the 1946 referendum and that he was still officially the King of all Bulgarians. He again spoke strongly in favor of a constitutional monarchy, which he recommended as a "flexible and pragmatic form of government." (23) Such statements were the main reason why the royal visit proved to be so controversial among anti-monarchist parties like the BSP, the BSDP, and the Agrarians, whose leaders avoided all contact with the visiting king, insisting that his presence deflected attention from the country's many dire problems.

Opinions on the future role of the exiled king were more evenly divided within the political elite than at the mass level. On the one hand, many leftist and centrist politicians reaffirmed their support for the so-called "Dertliev Constitution" of 1991 and remained opposed to enthroning a dynasty that, in the words of former President Zhelev, brought upon Bulgarians three national catastrophes and two of the most horrible political assassinations in our modern history-the murders of (prime ministers) Stambolov and Stambolii-sky." (24) On the other hand, the monarchists continued to insist that "Bulgaria is more likely to return to normality with Tsar Simeon as constitutional monarch, than by prolonging what has proved to be a disastrous experiment with republicanism." (25) For their part, many SDS leaders declared that the 1946 referendum results were "illegal," thus giving a boost to Simeon's hopes of being one day enthroned in Bulgaria:
   We have always declared that the 1946 referendum
   was illegal. We believe that the
   Bulgarian nation was given no free choice in
   1946. That is why the question about
   Bulgaria's future form of government and
   the validity of the Turnovo Constitution
   remains an open one. (26)

Throughout the 1990s, there was thus no elite consensus on the status of the exiled king or what to do with the abolished monarchy. Since Simeon insisted that he was seeking an important role in Bulgarian politics in order "to create a climate of consensus that would allow everyone to work together," (27) it was unclear how his political ambitions and the persistent cleavage between monarchists and republicans on this issue would affect the future of the transition process in Bulgaria. By far the least expected scenario was that the king would return to Bulgaria and run for election.

The 2001 Electoral Surprise

Simeon wanted to run in the presidential elections of 1992 and 1996, but in each case was prevented from doing so by the Constitutional Court, since the 1991 Constitution required that he should have been a Bulgarian resident for at least five years prior to the election. Nor was the former monarch, who had finally moved his official residence from Madrid to Sofia in October 2000, permitted legally to register his newly-founded National Movement as a political party in April 2001. But a month later his Movement was allowed to form an alliance with two smaller registered parties, the Party of Bulgarian Women and the nationalist Oborishte Party for National Revival, under the name of the National Movement for Simeon II (NDSII) in order to participate in the upcoming parliamentary election. For the first time, the ex-monarch publicly declared that he had no immediate plans to restore the monarchy in Bulgaria and pledged instead to combat official corruption and revive the moribund economy in order to meet the criteria for the coveted EU membership. In a now famous pre-election speech on April 6, 2001, Simeon declared that "I have chosen for myself the most difficult road. I have lived for decades guided only by my duty to serve the Bulgarian people. I am suffering now, seeing how their dreams are being crushed by poverty and despair." (28) He promised as prime minister to turn Bulgaria's fortunes around and bring prosperity to the impoverished Bulgarian nation.

In a stunning blow to the two formerly dominant political parties, the SDS and the BSP, the barely two-month-old NDSII won a resounding electoral victory in the 17 June 2001 election. At 64, Simeon became the first ex-royal to return triumphantly to power in post-Communist Europe. Achieved practically ex nihilo, his electoral success illustrated the unstable and unsettled nature of party politics in Bulgaria due to the catastrophic economic situation and the glaring inability of the existing political parties to offer a credible solution to it. Fed up with pervasive government corruption, organized crime, economic collapse and poverty, many ordinary Bulgarians greeted Simeon as a savior who had come to rescue their long-suffering country from what they saw as the stranglehold on power of incompetent, corrupt and self-serving coteries of party politicians. Simeon's comeback via the ballot box was clearly a result of Bulgaria's economic and social woes, which have produced mass discontent and disenchantment with the performance of the new post-Communist authorities. In the New Europe Barometer 2001 poll, for example, only 2% of the Bulgarian respondents said they were very satisfied with the way democracy works in their country, 25% were "fairly satisfied," 42% were not very satisfied, and 30% "not at all satisfied." (29) Only Slovaks, at 79%, showed a higher level of dissatisfaction than Bulgarians, 72%. Bulgarians were also very unhappy with the level of official corruption in their country, as 74% of the Bulgarian respondents in the same poll said that most or nearly all public officials are corrupt and take bribes.

The NDSII won with 42.73% of the ballots, receiving 120 seats in the 240-member parliament. By mobilizing the protest vote of the tired, disappointed and pauperized sectors of the Bulgarian population, Simeon became only the second monarch to return to power (if not to the throne itself) in postwar Europe after Spanish King Juan Carlos I was crowned in 1975. According to some media reports, his Movement would have won an absolute majority of parliamentary seats had it not been for the surprisingly good showing of a shadowy group calling itself Coalition for Simeon II, which garnered 3.4% of the popular vote. Many Bulgarians, particularly among those voting abroad, mistakenly cast their ballots in favor of the Coalition for Simeon II, believing they were voting for the former king's Movement. Simeon, who did not himself run for a seat, complained during the electoral campaign that the group had been deliberately created by the ruling SDS (which now openly detested the ex-king for opposing them in the election) in an effort to sow confusion among his supporters (30).

The United Democratic Forces, a SDS-led coalition, garnered 51 seats, having been backed by 18.18% of the electorate. The vote was a clear rejection of SDS Prime Minister Ivan Kostov's policies of economic austerity, as well as perceived ties to official corruption. The Coalition for Bulgaria, with the BSP as its main component, was supported by 17.15% of voters and obtained 48 seats. The ethnic Turk-dominated DPS won 21 seats, having received 7.45% of the vote. Since the NDSII was one seat short of the 121 required for an absolute majority in the National Assembly, it secured the participation of the DPS as an unofficial coalition partner.

Can the Monarchy Be Still Restored?

As prime minister, Simeon II ceased rejecting the 1946 referendum or the republican Constitution of 1991, to which he had to swear allegiance in 2001 in spite of his past declarations that he wants to rule Bulgaria only as king. While not ruling out a revival of the monarchy in the long term, he began insisting that this matter was not currently on the agenda and that Bulgarians should instead concentrate all their energies on tackling the grave economic and social ills of their homeland. Nevertheless, Simeon has continued to regard a constitutional monarchy as a desirable and achievable form of government for a post-Communist country like Bulgaria. When he assumed the premiership in mid-2001, his restorationist dreams appeared closer than ever to becoming reality. Simeon, who has always considered himself King of the Bulgarians, could count on monarchist sentiments that obviously survived under the Communist regime and may have become even stronger due to the trials and tribulations of the transition period. Having established the NDSII, which officially transformed itself into a formal political party in April 2002, the ex-king also had a strong power base that he could rely on in his efforts to restore the monarchy.

Once in office, Simeon steadfastly pursued a West-backed policy of market reforms and integration into Euro-Atlantic structures. But the public's deep disappointment with his ability to govern and especially with his painful economic reforms brought down sharply his popularity at home. In spite of the naively overoptimistic expectations of the population, heightened by Simeon's demagogic promise to rebuild the national economy and improve the abysmal living standards of Bulgarians in 800 days (his famous "800-day plan" announced during the 2001 electoral campaign), his government failed to ease the deep socioeconomic and moral crisis gripping the country. A 2003 government-sponsored conference on social policy reported that more than 40% of all Bulgarians were malnourished. (31) According to the Independent Trade Union Podkrepa (Bulgaria's version of Polish Solidarity), five million Bulgarians or 75% of the population lived on the edge of physical survival in 2004 (32) in spite of the rosy and wildly exaggerated economic statistics published by the authorities. Worse still, Bulgaria remained the most corrupt and criminalized state in Europe after Albania (and now Kosovo). Widespread public discontent sharply eroded Simeon's mass appeal, confirming that personal charisma is a tenuous and fleeting source of power, as the famous German sociologist Max Weber argued a century ago.

Following about a dozen defections from its parliamentary ranks that reduced the NDSII's near absolute majority to a mere plurality, the cabinet of Prime Minister Simeon was able to survive and complete its term in office in 2005 only with the tacit support of the DPS. After it became clear that even a charismatic former royal like Simeon II cannot provide a quick fix for Bulgaria's daunting problems, public approval of his party plunged from a high of 65.0% in July 2001 to 1.6% in May 2007. (33) Contributing to declining public confidence in his rule were the numerous cases of gross corruption by government officials. Simeon's cabinet, especially some of the previously unknown young emigres who had been appointed to critically important government posts, was buffeted by charges of corruption, mediocrity, incompetence, and professional ignorance. But the world's only king, past or present, to have been popularly elected to the highest political office in his country continued to hope that time was on his side, insisting publicly that Unfortunately, people were expecting miracles from my entry into politics. These expectations were unrealistic ... It is too early to make judgments. (34) In the end he and his ca were able to boast only of their foreign-policy accomplishments such as the country's admission into NATO and the EU. On April 2, 2004 Bulgaria became officially a full member of the North Atlantic Alliance-a foreign-policy success, which the government attributed directly to its unwavering backing of the U.S. policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. (35) And on April 25, 2005 the Simeon cabinet achieved its second major foreign-policy success by signing the EU accession treaty.

As the British historian Richard Crampton has argued, the republic-versus-monarchy debate in Bulgaria remained open-ended for so long mainly because of the disastrous failure of the post-Communist reforms and the anarchic domestic situation. (36) But as the national economy continued to stagnate and official corruption worsened under Prime Minister Simeon's rule, his political future, as well as that of the monarchy he would like to revive, were placed in great peril. In the parliamentary election held on June 25, 2005, the Socialist-led Coalition for Bulgaria, which most pre-election surveys had predicted would win more than half of the vote, came first, even though it ended up obtaining only a third (34.17%). of the ballots cast. The BSP's poorer than expected showing was probably due to splitting the protest vote with the ultranationalist Ataka (Attack) party.

Founded just two months before the election, Ataka was fourth with 8.75% of the popular vote. The Simeon-led NDSII was second with 22.08%, while the DPS, which ran independently from the monarchists, garnered 14.17% of the vote. A pre-election decision to withdraw all Bulgarian troops from Iraq by the end of 2005 may have helped the NDSII-DPS incumbents to avoid a complete debacle at the polls, given their dismally low approval ratings. The Socialists, lacking an absolute majority in the newly elected National Assembly and unwilling to work with Ataka, were forced to form a Grand Coalition-type government with Simeon's NDSII and the DPS, which is now headed by Socialist Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev.

There has been no improvement in the living standards of ordinary Bulgarians since the 2005 election. Bulgaria officially joined the EU on January 1, 2007, but it is now ranked as the poorest EU member (followed by Romania and Poland). With levels of official corruption and organized crime remaining distressingly high (37), Brussels has recently suspended three of its aid programs to Sofia worth at least 825 million euros, threatening impoverished Bulgaria with the unenviable prospect of paying more into the EU budget (to the tune of over $500 million in 2008 alone) than it is receiving from it, as well as becoming the first member ever to grow poorer after joining the EU. (38) Not unexpectedly, Bulgarians were the most dissatisfied with their lives among all European nations surveyed in 2007, according to the prestigious European Social Survey (ESS). (39) Just 9% of the Bulgarian respondents were satisfied with the state of the national economy, while 73% were dissatisfied. Only 11% of Bulgarians trust the central government, barely 10% trust the National Assembly, and only about 12% have any confidence in the court system. Bulgarians are also the most fearful for their lives and property among the 28 European nations surveyed.

No Monarchist Nostalgia

The deep unpopularity of the ruling BSP-NDSII-DPS coalition has further undermined the public appeal of the ex-monarch, whose own supporters have repeatedly called upon him to withdraw his party from Prime Minister Stanishev's government (something which Simeon has refused to do). But Simeon's biggest public-relations problem seems to be the hotly debated "restitution" of his family's "private" properties which were confiscated in 1947 by the Communist-dominated courts. Some of these properties were already returned to the ex-king by the UDF-led cabinet in 1997-2001-merely by administrative flat which was confirmed by a unanimous ruling of the Constitutional Court in 1998. As Prime Minister, Simeon widened the scope of administratively reclaimed properties to include not just former palaces, royal mansions, hunting lodges, vacation homes and other residential buildings, but also vast tracts of arable land and forests. His numerous detractors now insist that Simeon has illegally acquired all these properties valued at hundreds of millions of dollars (in fact, the value of the reclaimed forests alone was estimated at 510 million euros in 2006 (40)), because legally they have always belonged to the Bulgarian state, rather than to the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha dynasty (in the same way that the White House or the Camp David presidential retreat in the U.S., for example, belong to the federal government rather than to any particular president, past or present).

Simeon's vocal detractors whose ranks have been swelled by many of his former supporters, including from the now badly splintered UDF, charge that it was his greed and lust for power, rather than any desire to help the suffering Bulgarian nation that brought him back to Bulgaria in 2001. As they point out,
   ... this outrage involving the return to the
   royal family of state-owned properties valued
   at hundreds of millions of euros ... was
   committed without any legislation authorizing
   it, on the basis of missing or invalid
   property deeds, as well as unsigned or
   fraudulent declarations, and as a result of
   cabinet decisions orchestrated by Simeon
   himself. (41)

Critics also claim that in a televised interview in early 1990 Simeon ruled out "categorically" making any property claims against the Bulgarian state, (42) even as his lawyers were about to file petitions for restituting the dynasty's properties in Bulgaria. (43) Paradoxically, the recent efforts of his former supporters on the ideological Right to reclaim for the Bulgarian state the ex-monarch's restituted properties have been obstructed by Simeon's current coalition partners, including the Socialists, who previously condemned most vociferously the return of the royal family's properties as a crime against the nation and the state. Even though the National Assembly had set up a special parliamentary commission to probe the legality of the restitution of Simeon's properties, its work was effectively blocked by the Socialists and the DPS deputies who feared that any unfavorable decision might prompt the NDSII to bolt the ruling coalition.

Unfazed by this firestorm of public opposition and recrimination, Simeon has persisted in his efforts to reclaim even more "royal" properties through the courts, which has made him by far the most unpopular and controversial figure on Bulgaria's political scene today. (44) Not surprisingly, Simeon has become the target of vicious attacks in the Bulgarian media, questioning the veracity of his educational and business credentials and accusing him of being a gold-digger who sought political power in post-Communist Bulgaria in order to enrich himself and pay off his business losses and huge gambling debts from Western Europe's top casinos. His public image has suffered to such an extent that the same mass media which used to praise him for his supposed fluency in Bulgarian, now openly ridicule Simeon's poor command of his native language.

Perhaps influenced by the strongly negative media coverage, a sizeable majority of ordinary Bulgarians have endorsed the parliamentary calls for legal repeal of the restitution of Simeon's properties-71.1% of the respondents in a 2006 opinion survey were in favor and only 18.2% were opposed. (45) Some 33.8% of Bulgarians also backed the idea of criminally prosecuting all those politicians and government officials who had assisted Simeon in reclaiming the former "royal" properties. Two-thirds of the respondents in the same poll believe that Simeon has returned home for the sole purpose of seizing political power and enriching himself, while more than half are convinced that his only goal was to reclaim his family's "private" properties in Bulgaria as well as all those formerly belonging to the crown. According to the same poll, less than a fifth of Bulgarians still believe that Simeon has come back in order to help his compatriots in their daily struggle for survival.

Underscoring the sharp decline of Simeon's political fortunes is the poor performance of his party in recent elections. In spite of Simeon's much-touted pre-election promise to return to the Bulgarian state two royal palaces and 4,134 acres of restituted forests, the NDSII (now renamed the National Movement for Stability and Progress) won just 121,398 ballots or 6.26% of the vote in the May 20, 2007 election to fill Bulgaria's 18 seats in the European Parliament, thus reducing his party's representation from 4 members to currently only 1. And the NDSII's electoral performance at the local level has been even more disastrous, as Simeon's party failed to win a single mayoralty in the municipal elections of October-November 2007. This poor showing at the polls has led to numerous dire predictions in the Bulgarian press that in the next parliamentary election scheduled for June-July 2009 the NDSII will be completely unable to breach the 4% barrier required for representation in the national legislature. And in a further blow to Simeon's prestige, thirteen NDSII members of the National Assembly officially quit his party on November 27, 2007. (46)

At this point, restoring Bulgaria's monarchy with Simeon II back on the throne appears to be a largely forgotten issue. Nor is there any chance of holding a new referendum, which the monarchist groups and the SDS openly supported in the past, but which now seems most unlikely to be called, given growing public opposition to bringing back the monarchy and the lack of constitutional basis for such a referendum. Nor does Simeon insist on holding a plebiscite on this issue since he does not want to end up like King Leka I of Albania, whose chances of returning to the Albanian throne were dashed by a popular referendum in 1997 that clearly rejected his restoration. Still, he continues to extol the advantages of constitutional monarchy as the most suitable institution for Bulgaria's current needs, even though he now pays homage to the republican constitution and the present political institutions.


The controversy over bringing back the abolished monarchy reflects in a large measure the prolonged agony which post-Communist Bulgaria has been undergoing ever since the country was launched on a course of painful and destabilizing reforms. Against the background of a deep economic crisis, mass poverty, the breakdown of law and order, and endless political chaos which have traumatized the population, the attempts to reinstate the monarchy have failed only because of its low historical legitimacy and strong resistance by influential anti-monarchist members of the political class. Attitudinal evidence indicates that in spite of the very intense monarchist propaganda, the enthronement of Simeon II is rejected by a majority of ordinary Bulgarians who see the monarchy as a vestige of the past and an anachronism incompatible with the workings of a modern parliamentary democracy.

But Simeon's triumph in the June 2001 parliamentary election seemed to have changed dramatically his political standing at home. With a population deeply distrustful and even disdainful of the politically bankrupt post-Communist parties and politicians and despondent enough to grasp at straws, at that time few dared to rule out a monarchical future for a parliamentary republic governed by a once and would-be future king. But the prospects for restoring the monarchy are now believed to be negligible, given the existing constitutional hurdles and especially the population's increasingly anti-monarchist and anti-Simeon sentiments. While the ex-king's triumph in the June 2001 general election initially seemed to improve the chances for bringing back the monarchy, such a restoration has been rendered even less likely now by the numerous failures and blunders of his government, particularly its inability to rebuild the ailing national state and economy. In spite of some notable foreign-policy successes such as Bulgaria's entry into NATO and the EU, ex-Prime Minister Simeon did not live up to the naively overoptimistic expectations of Bulgarians who had hoped that he would save their country from the profound economic, social, political, institutional, and even moral crisis into which it has tragically descended.

The precipitous fall of the political fortunes of Simeon, especially as a result of the public-relations disaster involving the scandalous "restitution" of his family's properties which has turned the ex-monarch into a multimillionaire, does not bode well for the prospect of reintroducing the monarchy. For, in the eyes of many ordinary Bulgarians the former king has now turned into a liability and an embarrassing disappointment totally indistinguishable from the other members of post-Communist Bulgaria's political elite which is notorious for its unbridled lust for power, selfishness, insatiable greed, corruption, and shameless mendacity. In fact, the entire saga of the failed attempt to restore the monarchy in Bulgaria has only underscored the failure of the post-Communist transition, confirming Alexander Pope's famously bitter aphorism that politics is "the madness of all for the benefit of few."

(1) Bulgarian News Agency (BTA) in English, April 17, 1991.

(2) BTA in English, April 10, 1991.

(3) BTA in English, April 17, 1991.

(4) Kjell Engelbrekt, "Bulgaria: Cracks in the Union of Democratic Forces." RFE/RL Report on Eastern Europe 2:20 (May 17, 1991), 1-8.

(5) See Rossen Vassilev, "Will Bulgaria Become Monarchy Again?" Southeast European Politics, vol. IV, no. 2-3 (November 2003), 157-174.

(6) Plamen Tzvetkov, A History of the Balkans: A Regional Overview from a Bulgarian Perspective, vol. 2. San Francisco: Mullen Research University Press, 1993, 295.

(7) See BTA in English, January 17, 1990.

(8) See Cyril Black, The Establishment of Constitutional Government in Bulgaria. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1943; Elena Statelova and Zina Markova, eds. Spomeni za uchreditelnoto subranie of 1879 godina [Recollections about the Constituent Assembly of 1879]. Sofia: Otechestven Front Press, 1979.

(9) Interview with Simeon II in Philip Ward, Bulgarian Voices: Letting the People Speak. Cambridge and New York: Oleander Press, 1992, 8-9.

(10) BTA in English, February 12, 1990.

(11) Rada Nikolaev, "Bulgaria: The Public Debate over Restoring the Monarchy." RFE/RL Report on Eastern Europe 2:27 (July 5, 1991), 1-5

(12) Ibid..

(13) See Kevin Devlin, "Is There Any Role for Royalty in a Revolution?" RFE/RL Report on Eastern Europe 1:16 (April 20, 1990), 39-44.

(14) See Richard Rose and Christian Haerpfer, New Democracies Barometer V. Glasgow: University of Strathclyde Studies in Public Policy No. 306, 1998; and Rose and Haerpfer, New Democracies Barometer III: Learning from What is Happening. Glasgow: University of Strathclyde Studies in Public Policy No. 230, 1994.

(15) Duma, May 3, 1991.

(16) Zheliu Zhelev, Obrushtenia na prezidenta kum naroda i parlamenta sPresidential Addresses to the Bulgarian People and Parliamentt. Plovdiv: Khristo G. Danov Press, 1996, 201-203.

(17) BTA in English, January 16, 1991.

(18) Nikolaev, "The Public Debate over Restoring the Monarchy."

(19) BTA in English, May 25, 1991.

(20) BTA in English, June 5, 1991.

(21) BTA in English, June 6, 1991

(22) Alexander Andreev, "The Political Changes and Political Parties," in Iliana Zloch-Christy, ed. Bulgaria in a Time of Change: Economic and Political Dimensions. Brookfield and Aldershot: Avebury, 1996, 39.

(23) BTA in English, June 16, 1996.

(24) Zhelev, Obrushtenia na prezidenta kum naroda i parlamenta, 131.

(25) "Tsar Simeon Returns Home to Bulgaria," Monarchy (June 1996).

(26) Interview with Assen Agov in Duma, February 9, 1996.

(27) Interview with Simeon II in Trud, August 14, 1996.

(28) Ekaterina Nikolova, "Sled 6 godini tzariat prizna, che se e vurnal edinstveno zaradi imotite si" sSix Years Later, the King Admits He Has Come Home Only To Reclaim His Propertiest. Standart (July 2, 2007).

(29) Richard Rose, A Bottom-Up Evaluation of Enlargement Countries: New Europe Barometer I. Glasgow: University of Strathclyde, Studies in Public Policy No. 364, 2002.

(30) RFE/RL, Balkan Report, 19 June 2001.

(31) Milko Khristov, "Polovinata bulgari ne si doiazhdat" [Half of all Bulgarians Are Malnourished]. Standart (March 6, 2003).

(32) Boriana Dimitrova, "5 miliona jiveiat na ruba na mizeriiata" [Five Million Bulgarians Live in Poverty]. Standart (June 2, 2004).

(33) See "Danaiyskiat dar s tzarskite gori" [The Greek Gift of the Tsar's forests"]. Standart (May 7, 2007).

(34) "Bulgarian Prime Minister Pledges More Reform Despite Unpopularity." AFP (October 31, 2002).

(35) See Rossen Vassilev, "Public Opinion and Bulgaria's Involvement in the Iraq War," East European Quarterly, vol. XL, no. 4 (December 2006), 467-487.

(36) Richard J. Crampton, "Chaos Awaits a Returning King." The Daily Telegraph (May 30, 1996), 23.

(37) See "55 miliona leva podkupi za obshtestveni poruchki" [Fifty-five Million Levs Have Been Paid as Bribes for Public Contracts]. Standart (March 21, 2006), and Partiite pribirat po milion na den: Davame 130 000 rushveta vseki mesetz, koruptziiata skochila pri Simeon [Political Parties Collect Millions in Bribes Every Day: 130,000 Bribes Are Paid Each Month since Corruption Peaked Under Simeon].]. Standart (March 21, 2006).

(38) "Zhiveem po-bedno v Evrosuiuza" [We Are Worse Off Since Joining the EU]. Standart (June 11, 2008).

(39) "Bulgarite sa nai-nedovolni: Niamame doverie na pravitelstvo, politziia i sud, pokazva evroprouchvane" [Bulgarians Are the Most Dissatisfied: We Have No Faith in the Government, the Police and the Courts, According to an European Survey]. Standart (April 1, 2008).

(40) Bozhidar Dimitrov, "6 april-deniat na tzarskata luzha" [April 6 Is the Day of the Tsar's Lies], Standart (April 6, 2006).

(41) Ibid. (the translation from Bulgarian is my own).

(42) In February 1990, viewers of the Bulgarian National Television witnessed the following conversation between Simeon and Kevork Kevorkian, host of the popular weekly TV program "Every Sunday": Kevorkian: Do you have any material claims against Bulgaria? Simeon: What do you mean by "material claims"? Kevorkian: I mean any property claims. Simeon: No, not against my own country! No, you will never see me do anything like that. Not under any circumstances. No, categorically not.... (BTA in English, February 25, 1990).

(43) See Dimitrov, "6 april-deniat na tzarskata luzha" [April 6 Is the Day of the Tsar's Lies].

(44) See "Deputati: Tzariat da vurne gorite" [The Parliamentary Deputies: "The Tsar Should Return the Forests"]. Standart (June 25, 2008).

(45) Krum Blagov, "Narodut iska reviziia na tzarskite imoti: Simeon se vurna zaradi dvortzite, ubedeni sa polovinata bulgari" [Bulgarians Want a Revision of the Restitution of Tsar's Properties: Half of Bulgarians Believe Simeon Came Back to Reclaim His Palaces]. Standart (March 17, 2006).

(46) Elitsa Savova, "13th MP Left NDSV," SofiaEcho (December 3, 2007).

* Dr. Rossen Vassilev works for the Department of Political Science at the Ohio State University and one of his research
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Author:Vassilev, Rossen
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Date:Mar 22, 2009
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