The Bear’s Lair: Interview: Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha

My beloved wife Anna passed away unexpectedly last Wednesday, at the age of 58. In her memory I would like here to recall a joyful occasion, when through my journalistic work she was able to join me at breakfast with King Simeon II of the Bulgarians, her legitimate monarch since birth, elected prime minister of Bulgaria in 2001. This interview, published by UPI on April 24, 2002, was the result.


It is not simply journalistic curiosity. It is impossible to interview Simeon Saxe-Coburg Gotha, prime minister of Bulgaria, without remembering that he was crowned, and to legitimists remains, H.M. Simeon II, czar of all the Bulgars — and wondering whether one day he will again resume the latter status.

Born in 1937, Simeon ascended the throne in 1943, on the unexplained death of his father Czar Boris in an air crash. After his coronation in Sofia, the country underwent a Communist coup on Sept. 9, 1944, and his uncle and guardian the Regent Prince Kyril was executed. Two years later, the Moscow-controlled Communist government held a referendum, in which allegedly 94 percent voted for Simeon’s deposition. He left Bulgaria, moved to Spain in 1951, graduated from the Lycee Francaise, and spent a year (1958-59) in the United States, at the Valley Forge Military Academy.

To legitimists, the fall of the Bulgarian Communists in 1991 seemed to offer the promise of Simeon’s return. Though the record of the Bulgarian monarchy had been good, and Simeon, as a crowned monarch who had been illegitimately deposed, has one of the better exiled-monarch claims to return, no referendum was held.

Instead, in April 2001, Simeon announced his intention to run for Bulgaria’s parliamentary elections, formed the National Simeon II Movement, and on June 17, 2001, won a handsome parliamentary majority.

Simeon visited Washington this week, in connection both with the IMF-World Bank meetings and Bulgaria’s application to join NATO, and Tuesday hosted a small media breakfast which I attended.

“On NATO, Bulgaria’s way ahead is fairly clear,” said Simeon. “My message to President Bush is a pragmatic and realistic one, bearing in mind the relative sizes of the countries concerned. Bulgaria has no conflict with her neighbors, and has acted as a good ally of the United States since Sept. 11.

“Illegal immigration of Muslims is not a problem — Bulgaria isn’t rich enough — and ethnic tensions are defused by the Muslim minorities in Bulgaria coming from three groups, ethnic Turks, ethnic Bulgarians and Roma, all of which live in different parts of the country. The Turkish party is now a member of Simeon’s governing coalition.”

“Greece and Turkey are both backing Bulgaria’s application to join NATO, because they recognize they will be less isolated if Bulgaria and its neighbor Romania are members. At the same time, NATO itself is evolving, from an alliance against Russia to a vast mutual security perimeter of which Russia itself may well become a member — President (Vladimir) Putin, for example has been invited by Italian Prime Minister (Silvio) Berlusconi to attend a NATO meeting in Rome next week. NATO itself has very strong support within Bulgaria — 67-68 percent if opinion polls are to be believed. My main concern is that a rejection of Bulgaria’s application at September’s Prague summit may cause an upsurge in anti-Western feeling in Bulgaria.”

The victory of the leftist (though young and apparently pragmatic) Georgy Purvanov in November 2001’s Presidential election indicates that support for the old eastward-looking alliances is by no means dead.

Bulgaria’s application to join the European Union is also making good progress, according to Simeon, with Bulgaria having completed 17 of the 29 chapters of legislation required for EU entry — the task is huge as 80,000 pages of legislation must be translated into Bulgarian. Simeon is a strong believer in European integration, both for Bulgaria and more broadly for Europe as a whole, although he recognizes that a concentrated administration over a large population without proper devolution of powers has the potential to be a nightmare.

“In economic matters,” said Simeon. “I recognize and empathize strongly with the wish of the Bulgarian people to be lifted out of poverty, and with the large social needs of the population, particularly the elderly. At the same time, increases in public spending are hampered by Bulgaria’s Currency Board, which consists of foreign experts, and this year permitted only a public sector deficit of only 0.8 percent of gross domestic product.”

Bulgaria’s Currency Board, and the formal linkage in 1997 of the lev to the deutschemark (and now the euro) has worked well in stabilizing the economy, and Simeon believes that an Argentina-style collapse of the system is most unlikely, because of the presence of the board itself, which imposes tight strictures on Bulgarian fiscal and monetary policy, and whose recommendations are followed with care by Simeon’s government.

Simeon continued, “The major economic task facing the government is the completion as far as possible of Bulgaria’s privatization program. Much of this was carried out by the previous Ivan Kostov government, but it is clear that many Kostov privatizations lacked transparency, and that some unethical approaches were tried. The two largest privatizations still uncompleted are Bulgartabak, the state tobacco monopoly, and the telephone company. NATO entry would be an important advantage for these privatizations and for Bulgaria as a whole, because it would further reassure foreign investors of Bulgaria’s long-term stability.”

Simeon believes that the problem of foreign control of the commanding heights of the Bulgarian economy will greatly lessen as Bulgaria enters a united Europe, since most foreign investors in Bulgaria will then no longer be fully “foreign.” At the same time, he recognizes that in the future it may, for example, be advantageous to have some of Bulgaria’s banking decisions made in Sofia, rather than in Milan, Munich or Athens; in that case he would expect Bulgarian bankers to form new institutions which met this need.

Simeon also recognizes that corruption has been a serious problem in Bulgaria in the past; Having many years experience in Western business he recognizes the importance of running an administration that is as uncorrupt as is humanly possible, and of passing laws and administrative rulings that stamp out corruption, large and small, in the Bulgarian government as a whole.

Finally, when asked about the possible restoration of the monarchy, Simeon responded: “It would be absurd for me as prime minister to restore it by decree, while plebiscites are not recognized by the current Bulgarian constitution. If, as in most other East European countries, the electorate followed the normal pattern of tiring of a government after four years and replacing it with the opposition, so be it. I will at least, I hope, have achieved something significant for Bulgaria. Indeed, such a change may be inevitable — expectations in Bulgaria, as in many transition economies, have been and still are unrealistically high.”

“In the final analysis,” he concluded “it is a matter of great pride to me that I have not simply been czar of Bulgaria, but have been prime minister, elected by a substantial majority of the Bulgarian people. That, at least, can never be taken away.”

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)