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PERSPECTIVES: King by name, king by nature: DINNER WITH THE FT: The prime minister of Bulgaria cannot escape questions about the monarchy. With good reason, find Stefan Wagstyl and Theodor Troev.
Financial Times; Nov 17, 2001
By THEODOR TROEV and STEFAN WAGSTYL
King Simeon of Bulgaria greets his dinner guests standing in a wood-panelled room hung with family portraits and holding a glass of Coca-Cola.
He is tall and slim, with fine features and sharp blue eyes. His trim beard and moustache are flecked with grey. Even without a crown, he would fit perfectly into any picture-book gathering of European monarchs. The Coke adds a touch of informality to his studied elegance.
"You are most welcome, sir," he says, which leaves us in a quandary. If he is calling us "sir" what on earth are we to call him?
For the naming of 64-year-old Simeon is no easy matter. He was born Prince Simeon in 1937, the scion of a German aristocratic family that was invited on to the Bulgarian throne in the 19th century. In 1944, at the height of the second world war, he became King Simeon II when his father King Boris died suddenly. In 1946, he fled the country, to escape the communists, and adopted the invented name, Simeon Rilski.
The family settled in Spain, where Simeon eventually took his father's family name and went into business as Mr Saxe-Coburg. After the fall of communism he started visiting Bulgaria and acquired a passport in the Bulgarian name of Mr Saxecoburgotski.
This year, he launched himself into active politics as head of the King Simeon National Movement and won the general election. Formally, he is now called prime minister. But even though he recently completed 100 days in office, to most Bulgarians and to his relatives in Europe's royal families, he remains King Simeon.
Before we have a chance to consider which of the many names to use, we are led into a reception room and offered an aperitif of rakia, the tongue-tingling Balkan spirit.
We are meeting in the king's palace on the outskirts of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital. There are two buildings in a wooded park - a neo-classical pile and a more modest Art Deco lodge, in which the king has made his home. It is comfortable rather than grand, despite the ancestral paintings and the royal mementos.
There are photographs of other royals, including King Juan Carlos of Spain and King Hussein of Jordan. The king says he did not deliberately plan to stay in touch with other monarchs. "These are just personal relationships. They are very comforting."
He claims there is nothing extraordinary about his existence. But he protests too much. At one point he says: "I had a letter from a gentleman from Budapest. He wants to make a musical about me. That's so not me. I am such a boring person." He speaks in English without the slightest difficulty in choosing his words.
The king lives in the palace with his Spanish-born wife, Margarita, and a secretary. Their only help is a cook who is usually gone in the evenings. "She has stayed tonight to prepare the food," says the king. "But there is no staff to wait on us. So we will serve ourselves a very simple Bulgarian meal."
It is, as he says, simple. But it is also delicious. We start with a salad of tomato, lettuce and fresh cheese, accompanied by bread and red Bulgarian wine.
From the outset, the king makes clear how seriously he is treating the prime ministership. Perhaps this is to dispel any idea that he is playing at politics. Or that his commitment to Bulgaria, after more than 50 years abroad, is anything less than complete.
He says: "I've always worked hard, but I've never known anything like this. I work 12 hours and bring home what my security guards call my homework in briefcases. I do another five or six hours . . . Can you imagine what this means to me? I used to make 70 or 80 flights a year. Now, I haven't flown anywhere since May. My children and grandchildren are in Spain and I must be here."
We are interested in how Simeon sees himself. Is he king or prime minister? How can somebody with such a complicated past possibly lead his country into the future? Does he harbour ambitions to restore the monarchy, as many in Bulgaria suspect, despite his frequent denials?
His answers are carefully phrased. "I think of myself as King of Bulgarians. I represent continuity in this country. It is one of the reasons people trust me."
He adds: "I am my father's son. In my family certain values were passed down to me. I was proclaimed king (in 1943) by parliament. I say this not because I am a conceited fool but because these are historical facts."
The king insists he has no dynastic ambitions. Three of his four sons live in Spain and are Spanish citizens. Only the second, Kyril, who lives in London, has a role in Bulgarian politics, as an economics adviser to Peter Stoyanov, the president.
But he does not entirely rule out a restoration of the monarchy. He says: "Restoration has very little to do with what I have to do as prime minister of the republic. (But) it's difficult. I cannot disassociate myself from my previous identity."
We finish the first course and he picks up a small brass bell from the tablecloth. He rings it in a way which suggests that he has rung it all his life.
The cook comes immediately to clear the plates, despite the king's earlier comments about serving ourselves. The second course consists of Bulgarian kebabs, potatoes and fresh dill, served, like the first, on monogrammed china. The food may be plain, but there is no forgetting who is the host.
We ask what he wants to achieve as prime minister. He says: "I want to help Bulgaria." He pauses, then corrects himself. "No, that sounds pompous. I want to help Bulgarians."
He explains he wants people to improve their standard of living and their standing in Europe. He also wants to lead his country into Nato and into the European Union. He says that his politics are those of the mainstream European centre-right. "The moderate centre," he calls it, saying that more precise words such as "conservative" and "Christian democrat", which might also be applied, are not well understood in Bulgaria.
The country has three barriers to overcome in linking itself with the core of Europe, says the king. First, it was part of the Ottoman empire and never knew the Renaissance. Next, it lost nearly 50 years under communism. And finally, it is an Orthodox nation with different traditions from the Roman Catholic heart of Europe.
But these barriers can be overcome, he argues. "Bulgaria is a small country. No matter how big our problems are, they're controllable. Our people have as much right as other people to live well. We must just get our act straight."
He wants to build on the mar ket-oriented reforms of his predecessor as prime minister, Ivan Kostov. When he took over, Kostov gave him a pen. The king says: "He said I should use it to sign the EU accession treaty. I said we should do it together because he has earned it."
The bell rings again, the plates are changed and we move on to pudding - a Viennese apple strudel. "People say that the strudel came to Bulgaria with my grandfather. But I don't think so. I believe it came through contacts along the Danube. The Danube was a powerful force connecting this region together."
As we finish the cake, the lights suddenly go out and we are plunged into darkness. The cook comes out and lights the candles, bathing the room in a soft glow. Everything looks different. The past suddenly seems more strongly present.
When the lights return, the king says the house has powerful memories for him because it was from here, as a nine-year-old boy, that he was expelled by the communists, together with his sister, mother and aunt. As they were driven out of the palace they passed a contingent of Soviet soldiers. His mother and aunt thought they might all be shot. But the car continued to the railway station where they were put on a special train to Istanbul.
He started visiting Bulgaria again in 1996. But he moved back into the house only this year, after it was restored to him by the government.
"I came back to live here on January 22. I slept here that night by myself. I had only a bed and a crate. I could not fall asleep for thinking of everything that had happened in my life since I had last slept in this house 55 years earlier."
As dinner ends and we start to leave, the king adds: "After so many years in exile, I'm very pleased to be here. There's something atavistic about it."