Magazine article The Spectator

The Not-So-Great Pretender

Magazine article The Spectator

The Not-So-Great Pretender

Article excerpt

ITS been a quiet New Year in the Balkans, hasn't it? Arkan, the playboy terrorist, was gunned down in broad daylight; there are rumours that Albania is about to invade Montenegro; sporadic murders continue in Kosovo; and the Serb defence minister has just been sieved with bullets in a Belgrade chop-house. Apart from that, peace reigns supreme. Very weird. One theory is that this is the calm before the storm and that Serbia's democratic opposition is about to oust Milosevic for good. If so, the man who may become head of state is biding his time in the comparatively action-packed environs of Curzon Lane near Hyde Park.

Crown Prince Alexander - son of King Peter II who was deposed in 1945 and died in 1970 - is keen to promote the revived monarchy as a cornerstone of the new democratic Yugoslavia. The Prince gives interviews wherever he can - Newsweek, the Daily Telegraph, BBC News 24, the International Herald Tribune, not to mention, last year, The Spectator. And his message is always the same: democracy, democracy, democracy. It's not about him; he's doing this for the proud and defiant people from whom he has been exiled for most of his life.

At first I was pencilled in to join the Prince on a visit to Republika Srpska the Serb enclave in Bosnia - but when his spin doctor checked my last piece for this magazine (the one in which I stitched up the News of the World) the plan was shelved. A meeting in London was arranged instead.

'An issues-based interview,' the spin doctor ordered, 'rather than that "colourful" sort of style. Otherwise we'd prefer not do it.'

'Okey-cokey, squire,' I responded gravely. 'You're the boss. Nuff said. By the way, what's the form, name-wise?'

'Oh, he's very casual. Just call him "Prince Alexander".'

I received a press pack and a video of the Prince's visit to Belgrade in 1991. Grainy colour footage shows his emotional arrival in Yugoslavia after 46 years in the wilderness. He comes out of the departure lounge wearing a tight blue suit. A beaming, oval chap with a fine mop of dark hair, he looks like the kind of behind-the-scenes nonentity you might find in charge of a privatised gas firm. With him are his Greek-born wife and 11-year-old son. Waving, he walks towards a symbolic window-box that has been placed on the ground. It is full of watercress and represents his people's proud and defiant tradition of market-gardening. The Prince halts, kneels and kisses the watercress, rubbing his face tenderly on the green, earthy shoots. Then he gets up, straightens his trousers and wipes away a proud and defiant tear. He is deeply moved. Either that or the window-box was full of chives.

Next we see him in the capital. Thousands crowd the pavements. Every rooftop and every jam-packed balcony is a serious safety hazard, but the mood is joyous. There is ecstatic chanting. On the soundtrack an iffy Balkans commentator describes the scene: 'Ent now he is companied by jeers off "Vee bont the king".' The Prince makes a speech, then passes the microphone to his cherub-voiced son who addresses the crowd with amazing aplomb. Impressive stuff. I can't help thinking, if Dad blows the monarchy gig, that kid could easily cut it in a boy band.

And so, one blustery Tuesday, I find myself in Mayfair. It's hardly an address that inspires much confidence, but the Prince has taken a set of rooms away from the dodgy doorbells of Shepherd Market ('Basement Suzy Takes Amex') and works in a street of discreetly imposing terraces. A greying Serberella opens the door. I sit in an ante-room while she makes coffee. A younger girl taps away at a keyboard. All of a sudden she leaps to attention. The Prince has emerged from his suite. He shakes my hand and ushers me in and I throw a smile at the erect typist. Tough call, that, having to stand up every time the boss pokes his nose round the door. I wonder how she does her job. Unless of course that is her job.

The Prince's office is decorated expensively but with restraint. …

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