East European History 0200
University of Pittsburgh
Fall Semester 1998-99
Prof. Irina Livezeanu

Topic One - Reading Two

Selection from:
Drakulic, Slavenka. Cafe Europa: Life After Communism. New York: Norton & Co., 1997.


A King for the Balkans


His Royal Highness the Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia stood in a park in front of a microphone, holding a piece of paper in his pudgy hands. He was excited. This was his first public appearance, the very first time he had addressed his subject as the crown prince in the middle of his capital, Belgrade. The crowd of tens of thousands of people stretched as far as he could see. At first he heard a murmur, for the crows was no less excited than he was, followed by a tense silence full of expectation.

Prince Alexander could hardly believe that this was happening, that he was standing here, in Belgrade, in front of all these people, who had come to greet him and to listen to their long-absent, almost forgotten prince. Only a few months previously he had been an ordinary businessman in London, the city which his father, King Peter, had chosen for his exile as a young man in 1941. Alexander had been born there in 1945 and had spent his whole life abroad without much prospect of ever returning as king of Yugoslavia. What hope for the throne could he nurture as

Page 100

long as Tito was alive? Instead, he had set out on a business career. His first wife was a Spaniard and his second a Greek. He did not have any contact with his potential kingdom whatsoever; in the first place he was forbidden by the communist government even to visit it. Of course, he was aware of the existence of that beautiful, if somewhat wild homeland of his in the Balkans; he had read Rebecca West and he was aware of being a Karadjordjevic. But to be a prince without land did not interest him very much. He was a practical man, lacking the need for this kind of fantasy.

Then the impossible happened. Communism collapsed, and there he finally was, His Royal Highness Crown Prince of Yugoslavia. Perhaps even a king one day, who knows? His royalist friends, in London and in Belgrade (suddenly, he discovered that Belgrade was full of royalists), told him that there was a real chance of him regaining his throne. At first, Alexander did not really believe that such a possibility existed, but after a while he succumbed to it, especially since his wife, a commoner, had embraced the idea of becoming queen. He decided to take his chance, and started to prepare himself to give interviews as if he was already an important figure, to offer his opinions on the latest political and economic issues, to speak about the future of the country.

Anybody in his place would probably have done the same. After all, hadn't the most improbable event - the downfall of communism - already happened? Could one rule out a further miracle? Alexander thought that it wouldn't hurt him to try. He had nothing to lose, everything to gain - maybe even the entire kingdom. Well, perhaps not the entire kingdom, since Slovenes and Croats were already giving very clear signals that they had no

Page 101

intention of remaining within Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, he would establish himself as a serious pretender to the throne, placing his name on the list of those royals who hadn't given up hope of taking over the country. And if the big plan failed, he thought, a bit of advertising in the world's media wouldn't be bad for business.

As he stood there, in front of the crowds, he became aware that he was not used to so many people, so much attention, so much hope. He felt that his palms were sweating. 'Dragi Beogradjani,' he began. Alexander had courtesy enough to address the crowd in the Serbian language, even though he did not speak it at all - that was a measure of how much he really believed he would take back the throne one day. He had rehearsed the speech, and was determined to make it appear as natural as possible. However, his accent was so bad that his words were not understood at all. Yet this did not seem to matter much. As soon as he opened his mouth, the crowd cheered and applauded him frantically. The language was not nearly as important as his presence - the fact that here was their Crown Prince, finally addressing them.

What really mattered was that he was back, and with him, the whole royal spectacle: the solemn ceremony in the Orthodox church with a lot of prayers, gold shining and candles flickering at the altar, the tolling of church bells, the singing of the old anthem 'Boze, Spasi Kralja', the tears, the bows and curtsies, the aristocracy. You could not say that Prince Alexander looked like a prince from a fairytale, or even a tabloid newspaper, or Hollywood movie. He was not tall, or elegant, or handsome. There was nothing noble about his heavy, stocky body, his short fingers or his face,the face of a slick car dealer. But he was the Crown Prince, and he generated a feeling that the past had been restored

Page 102

to these people waiting for him to speak, who had been forced to live for fifty years without any rights to that past. HRH the Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia brought it all back that day, just by saying, 'Dragi Beogradjani'.

What is wrong with this picture? I thought, watching the whole ceremony on TV. Was it really possible that these people wanted a monarchy in 1992? If that was the case, then what was the revolution of 1989 all about? I myself thought, perhaps wrongly, that it was all about the attainment of democracy. But now it seemed to be more complex than that, at least in the Balkans. Out of nowhere, royalists appeared in growing numbers and with visible aspirations. Moreover, this was not the case only in Serbia, but also in Bulgaria and Romania, as well as in Albania, all of which were kingdoms before the Second World War. King Michael of Romania had been forbidden to visit his country by the new government, because of the fear that his presence might provoke the same sentiments as Prince Alexander's was doing now in Serbia. Out of the blue, a trick of history had suddenly put the four successors to the thrones in these Balkan countries, who had spent most of their lives waiting, in a position to play serious political roles.

A king in the Balkans? One might have thought that communism had succeeded in erasing every memory ofthe past, of the monarchies, that is, since it was its intention everywhere to convince people that history started with communist rule. It is true that not many of the Balkan nations had good memories of their monarchies. Indeed the Serbs did not, as in Yugoslavia before the war the monarchy had turned into a bloody dictatorship. Besides, all four nations were more or less poor peasant countries

Page 103

and the majority of their people had lived better under communism than monarchies. They had had more to eat, more educational opportunities and their health had improved. But what is absent from history, what is forbidden or repressed, often turns into a myth.

The explanation for the desire to re-establish the monarchy in the Balkan countries is however not to be found exclusively in reminiscences of the good old times. It is more strongly rooted in the nature of the communist system itself, as well as in the period of confusion and insecurity following the breakdown of communism. If before people had lived in a historical vacuum, now they found themselves in a political vacuum. There are multi-party systems, but parties seem very similar to each other. The only well-organised one is the 'transformed' or really transformed communist party, as seen in all of the countries in question during their first free elections. People might have voted against the communists, but they voted for those most similar to them. They opted for the familiar. Having lived so long under communism and having no solid democratic tradition, they could not develop an interest in politics overnight, or participate actively in the complicated political life ofthe new period. To be involved in politics was always to be an opportunist, aiming to get a better job, to promote a career or to get better pay. Under communism politics was something distant and dangerous, something to fear and hate, certainly not something to get involved in.

After all, the two most terrible dictators in Eastern Europe were Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania and Enver Hoxha in Albania. Communism breeds only masses, not individuals, not citizens. Citizens who are aware of their rights and able to fight for them are only found in a

Page 104

democracy. In the communist mass society very few people believed that a single individual could bring about change. In Romania, during two consecutive free elections, the crypto-communists were voted into office (the same thing happened in Serbia). The Romanians overwhelmingly (85 per cent of them) supported Ion Iliescu for president in preference to some competent but grey bureaucrat who would work on behalf of democracy. It is wrong to assume that they did it because they did not know what they were doing. On the contrary, they did know, and they did it because they felt they needed such a party and such a personality. They saw in Iliescu a strong character, a strong leader who would guide them through rough transitory times. People did not want a dramatic break, even if that would have released them from their prison; they needed a feeling of continuity.

Romanians and Serbs alike reached for familiar solutions in similar situations: a known party; a strong leader. In turbulent times, times of dramatic social and political change, people tend to fall back on what they know. Before, the only identification one was allowed was with the working class, yet, underneath that lid there was one's own nationality, language, religion and culture to identify with. Nationality and religion became props, sticks people could not walk without, something known and secure to give them the new identity they needed. The immediate rise of nationalism and religious feeling right after the fall of communism, and to a dangerous degree (as happened in former Yugoslavia and the former USSR) speaks for itself. What else was there to identify with? The new political game and its leaders had only just started to emerge, and were unknown and mistrusted; there were no democratic traditions to facilitate the transformation of society and no

Page 105

civic institutions one could count on. As Ryszard Kapuscinski writes in his book "Imperium", the concept of "perestroika" came from 'above'. In other words, the idea of democratisation did not come from 'below', from the people themselves. They were too frightened to dare to demand anything like democracy. Like everything else, it was initiated from the very top.

After the break with the communist past, there was a desperate almost palpable need to establish a firm link with the pre-war or pre-communist past. Thus Slovakia or Croatia, two newly independent states, quickly established links with the only period of'independence' of which they had a collective memory - unfortunately the fascist period under Josef Tito and Ante Pavelic respectively. These two new states did not have any past monarchies to relate to. Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary had at least some democratic traditions to claim as their heritage. On the other hand, kings of the Balkan countries were there, at hand, as living proof of the past. What could be more logical than to try to bring them back to their respective countries in order to restore the monarchies there? Well, in my view, it would merely replace one kind of feudalism with another.

If you take a closer look at Balkan communist leaders like Nicolae Ceausescu, Enver Hoxha, Josip Broz Tito or Todor Zhivkov, a clear feudal pattern to their rule can be discerned. They treated their citizens as mere objects of their political or other whims; they wielded almost absolute power over people's lives; they lived in palaces, some confiscated from former kings (like Beli Dvor in Belgrade), others, even bigger, were built by the dictators themselves (Ceausescu); they established their relatives in key positions and rewarded their faithful vassals; they had courts of

Page 106

servants at their disposal, as well as their own army and police; they were only formally responsible to their parliaments or to the communist party. In these Balkan countries, communism was in a way a continuity of feudalism. Therefore, the desire to re-establish the monarchy in these Balkan countries is not an archaic, outdated idea in modern Europe, but one that has never died, and which would guarantee continuity with the past, perhaps even a certain political stability.

One needs to understand that we, the people from the communist world, are still children in the political sense. We need a daddy, somebody who will look after us, so that we don't have to look after ourselves. We don't know how to be free and we are not ready for responsibility. The result is a palpable disappointment with the new, post-communist reality. How come democracy doesn't work? Democracy does not work just because our presidents say it does, or because we have a new, democratic constitution, a multi-party system, free elections, a free-market economy. These are only basic preconditions for building democracy; it is us, all of us, who have to make it work. To know how to do it, we need to learn from those who have some experience. But who likes to go to school? Not us.

Perhaps an enlightened monarchy is not such a bad solution after all. If people feel the need for a father figure, they are going to install him one way or another, so wouldn't it be better to have a ready-made historical figure, such as a king, rather than yet another shoeless maverick who will turn into both a king and a dictator as soon as he grabs power? A nice, educated rich king, who would fulfill that paternal role for an adolescent nation and, at the same time, would feel a noble duty to serve his people, would not nesessarily be an obstacle to the development of

Page 107

democracy. Look at England, the Netherlands or Sweden. On the contrary, a monarch would perhaps help people to adjust to a new political and economic reality, devoting time to the construction of the institutions of a civic society, the development of private ownership and a proper middle class with liberal values: in short, the essence of any functioning democracy. And if this sounds anachronistic, isn't the whole idea of establishing ethnically clean nation states, which is nourished in the Balkans today, equally anachronistic - and more costly in terms of peace and human lives?

If a king is the answer to many of the fears and anxieties of the masses in the Balkan countries, then long live the king! Perhaps, having helped the country to its feet, he would confine himself to the symbolic representation of the state, leaving politics to more competent people while he takes time off to go sailing, like the Swedish King. Such a figure is the opposite of what we have in Croatia today: an absolutist, theatrical king without a crown or sceptre, but with all attributes of the royalty; and of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, a dictator who is willing to pay any price to stay in power. Leaders like him are too greedy for power and have no chance to learn the very first lesson of democracy: that they are there to serve their people, not to rule them. And if that is so, wouldn't it be better for Serbs to have a real king, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic? Perhaps Croatia could produce someone, too?

Page 108

Return to History 0200 - Topic One

East European History Homepage