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Thursday, 14 June, 2001, 16:19 GMT 17:19 UK
Old king promises new Bulgaria
supporter kisses King Simeon II's hand
Bulgarians warmly welcome King Simeon II's return

By Janet Barrie in Bulgaria

Bulgarians vote in a general election this weekend - a chance for them to pass their verdict on a pro-western, reformist government that has won praise for its reforms that are starting to turn around one of the poorest countries in Europe.


The king is seen as a symbol of the new ethics and he's the only serious politician here not marred by the mistakes of the last 10 years

Milen Velchev, election candidate

Just a few months ago, it looked certain of victory. But it now faces a serious challenge from an unlikely political player - Simeon II, the Bulgarian king sent into exile 50 years ago when Bulgaria became a Communist state.

He is the first eastern European monarch to enter politics - and the polls show his party has a very real chance of success.

Although Simeon II, is greeted in public by ecstatic crowds, he is still just getting to know the people he did not see for 50 years.

But he does not just want their recognition - he wants their votes. He says he can give Bulgarians what they are missing.

"I think trust - trust and confidence are two very important things. And it's been like this ever since I came back in 1996. But this time one can have a bit more of an active role," he says.

Nostalgia

This is not a novelty political party - the National Movement for Simeon II has a serious chance of success this weekend.

It is a rallying point for nostalgic monarchists and a protest for those fed up with years of painful economic reforms.

Ivan Kostov
Prime Minister's Ivan Kostov's reformist government may lose to the king
His candidates for parliament are a diverse bunch - a former beauty queen, a magician and an Olympic athlete - but also international businessmen.

"The king is seen as a symbol of the new ethics and he's the only serious politician here not marred by the mistakes of the last 10 years," says Milen Velchev, who put his career as an economist in the City of London on hold to stand as a candidate for the king's party.

Bulgaria is going downhill rapidly, says Kosto Ivanov, driving his battered yellow Lada through the streets of the Bulgarian capital. His years of training and experience as an engineer are wasted now - the best he can do is eke out a meagre living as a taxi driver.

All around us there are countries running into problems - there are civil wars, violence - we have to keep this part of the Balkans stable

Political commentator Evgeny Dainov

There is, he says, a tiny percentage of incredibly wealthy and a vast underclass of desperately poor. He says the king has the solutions to Bulgaria's problems and has his vote.

"He's a modest man and he's a businessman. He's coming here to save the country. That's a brave thing to do - all those risks involved - all that crime. He's going to drag this country out of a deep swamp," he says.

Balkan oasis

Simeon II has touched a nerve here - until recently most Bulgarians had probably forgottten they even had a king, and just a few months ago his party did not even exist.

Some opinion polls have suggested since then that 40% of people would vote for him.

But there are still some concerns. Bulgaria has been a little oasis of calm and tolerance in the volatile Balkans, but some observers fear there is a threat to that if his party finds its way into government.

"You cannot afford to have a fragile, motley crew in charge of a country," says the political commentator Evgeny Dainov.

"All around us there are countries running into problems - there are civil wars, violence - we have to keep this part of the Balkans stable. And if he takes over, I'm not sure Bulgaria will continue to be stable."

In the years since the end of Communism there has been new interest here in old traditions like the church and the monarchy.

This weekend will show if that means Bulgarians turn to old royalty to solve new problems.

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See also:

03 May 01 | Europe
Bulgarian ex-king in the running
04 Apr 01 | Europe
Ex-king to unveil political plans
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Bulgaria
15 Jan 01 | Europe
Timeline: Bulgaria
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