Magazine article The Spectator

The New Nelson Mandela

Magazine article The Spectator

The New Nelson Mandela

Article excerpt


KING Simeon Borisov Saxe-Coburg-- Gotha of Bulgaria sits in a beautifully appointed drawing-room in his small neoGothic palace on the outskirts of Sofia, signed photographs of King Juan Carlos of Spain and King Hussein of Jordan at his elbow, and tells me in his slightly 1940s English that he sees himself as Bulgaria's Nelson Mandela. Which is not, perhaps, the first analogy that springs to mind. Admittedly, he shares Mandela's unmistakable chiefliness (Queen Victoria's genes), but this man also has long, manicured fingers (no rock-breaking for Simeon), and gorgeously tailored suits (no lurid tribal shirts lurking in that wardrobe, I would bet).

Yet Simeon II has a point. Deposed as king at the age of nine by Bulgarian communists, he has returned to his homeland after half a century of exile to become one of the country's most powerful politicians. When in 1996 Simeon returned to Sofia for the first time from half a century of exile in Madrid - admittedly more comfortable than Mandela's sojourn on Robben Island - cheering crowds hailed him as a saviour. Like Mandela, he was someone who had suffered at the hands of the regime yet had not been tainted by it - a man whose moral stature qualified him as something more than just a politician. He may have been out of sight during the long years of hardline communist rule in Bulgaria, but he was never, if you believe his present-day followers, out of his people's minds.

'I can't be considered an outsider - like Mr Mandela, I've been for many years on the outside physically, but I have always followed events here very, very closely,' said Simeon, whose grandfather Ferdinand, an Austro-Hungarian cavalry officer, was volunteered by Vienna when the Bulgarians, newly independent from the Ottoman Empire in 1887, were interviewing for a king. `My experience is not so different in absolute terms from that of Mandela's return.'

In April, Simeon decided to turn the vast reservoir of popular goodwill towards him into hard political capital. He launched a non-partisan `national movement' - running on a vague platform of reform, purging corruption and joining the EU (a long shot, even by Simeon's admission) - which was returned as Bulgaria's largest single party at last weekend's parliamentary elections. That has made Simeon the key political power-broker in Bulgaria, since his party will be the core of the future coalition government. But Simeon himself doesn't seem to want direct executive power - he did not run for a seat in parliament, neither is he likely, say political strategists in his `movement', to become prime minister, as would be his due as leader of the largest party in parliament. Simeon says that he wants to remain `above the rough-andtumble' of politics - which leaves him with an ill-defined role `somewhere between Pope and President', said a political analyst, Ivan Krastev.

In fact, Simeon's main problem is that he can never be what Bulgarian voters (certainly those of the simpler sort) really want him to be: a father-king, a saviour. He's a decent, intelligent, rational man, brought up for the most part in the West. He's not an apparatchik, or an intellectual, or an ex-- KGB wheeler-dealer, or indeed any readily Bulgarian type - and that's his strength, in the eyes of many voters. But it's also his failing, because what Bulgarians want him to be - like his German grandfather before him - is a deus ex machina, who will parachute into their squalid and corrupt polity and miraculously right all wrongs.

The idea that his people see him as a saviour bothers Simeon profoundly. `That's a terrible responsibility,' he mutters when the idea is put to him. `We can save the country by getting our act together, but to sit back and expect one man to save the country - that's the syndrome of someone else doing things for them; it's unfortunately very widespread. …

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