Alexander Karadjordjevic is hoping for a mid-life career change. At 55, he has served in the British army and worked in advertising, insurance brokering, banking and consulting. He seems to have done well for himself — his office suite in London's exclusive Mayfair district is discreetly elegant, his gray suit impeccably tailored. But despite his experience and qualifications, the position Karadjordjevic wants most has thus far eluded him.
Karadjordjevic, or HRH Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, as his business card identifies him, was born to be king. Problem is, by the time he was born, in a Claridge's hotel suite that Britain's wartime government declared Yugoslav territory for the occasion, his country had dispensed with its monarchy. Alexander has lived his entire life in peripatetic exile. He attended schools in Switzerland, the U.S. and Britain, and, forced to earn his living rather than reign for it, has worked in cities as far-flung as Rio de Janeiro and Chicago. He speaks English with an accent that is more American than British, and his fluency in Serbian is limited. "I could speak it better," he concedes. "You've got to perfect it by going home."
With the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic and the election of Vojislav Kostunica, who in the past has expressed support for the restoration of the monarchy, Alexander's chance for some long-term language immersion is not the wild dream it might once have seemed. He looks for inspiration to King Juan Carlos, who served as a unifying figure in Spain's transition from dictatorship to democracy. "The King really contributed, being a neutral person," says Alexander. "I think you need someone who will defend and make sure that the constitution is being followed, and gently nurse things along."
As Alexander tells it, he has already demonstrated his credentials for the role of benevolent constitutional monarch by helping to lay the foundation for Yugoslavia's transformation to democracy. "I've been deeply involved with the democratic opposition," he explains. "I contributed to their coming together in three conferences which I convened." According to Alexander, he succeeded where international mediators had failed. "I convened the whole lot, the entire cross-section of the opposition." Now that democracy has taken root in Yugoslavia, Alexander is confident that "the monarchy can contribute to stability, unity and continuity." Will it have the chance?
Having waited so long for this propitious moment, Alexander knows it would be pointless to try to rush things. "This is a process you cannot throw at people," he cautions. He is noncommittal when pressed on the timetable for a restoration, insisting that for the moment the focus must remain on more urgent matters. "The main issue, now that democracy has arrived, is aid," he says.
On a visit last month to Yugoslavia in the aftermath of the election, the most recent of a number of trips since he was first allowed to set foot on Yugoslav soil in 1991, Alexander pointedly avoided the former royal palaces and estates he hopes eventually to recover. "I never went to see them. The issue now is people." Foreign journalists especially, Alexander says, tend to fixate on the material accoutrements of kingship, asking "'What about the crown, the jewels, the gold?' Well there's no gold, there are no jewels, there's no money. There are feelings and there's symbolism and there's history and there's hope. The monarchy is close to the people."
In cities like the monarchist bastion of Cacak, thousands of people did turn out to greet Alexander during his latest trip to Serbia, as they have in the past, but the royalist bandwagon is far from full. Many Serbs still see him as a curiosity, and the results of a recent opinion poll sponsored by Belgrade's Institute for Social Studies indicate that fewer than 8% would welcome the restoration of the monarchy. "I'm sure he is a nice person, but he doesn't even speak the language properly," says Belgrade housewife Jelena Milosavljevic. "Anyway, Serbia needs to move forward, not backward in history."
President Kostunica, who in 1992 joined an opposition coalition with a platform that included the return of the monarchy, greeted Alexander warmly but said nothing about restoration. "The return of the monarchy is simply not on the agenda," says Milan Milosevic, political analyst for the weekly newsmagazine Vreme. The best Alexander can hope for, Milosevic believes, is restoration of his Yugoslav citizenship and the return of some royal properties. "He would always be welcome in Serbia, and there will always be some people who will treat him like a real king, although they don't take his title very seriously."
Naturally, Alexander sees things differently. "My roots are very deep in the country. The name Karadjordjevic, if you remove the title, is deeply rooted in the country's history of nation building. I decided to use the name for the good of the country, the respect of all religions, all ethnic groups, human rights, democracy."
In the democratic euphoria that followed Milosevic's defeat, such noble sentiments are on many lips but will prove difficult to translate into policies. Alexander agrees that Milosevic must face justice for his alleged crimes but, like Kostunica, thinks this should be meted out by national courts, not the war-crimes tribunal in the Hague. As for the secessionist push in Montenegro, Serbia's sole remaining partner in the Yugoslav federation, "if you put it to the people there today they may not want to secede. They would like to be Montenegrins, but they don't want to be their own state." Besides, he adds, his family may have ascended Yugoslavia's throne via Serbia, but "you're looking at Montenegrin blood. I'm also a descendant of King Nikola of Montenegro." Similarly, in the semi-autonomous province of Kosovo, Alexander glosses over ethnic divisions: "Kosovo is close to the hearts of the Serbs, and that must be taken into account. And the residents who live there have every right to live there."
Fellow aspiring monarch Leka Zog of Albania, who fled his country with his family in 1939 when he was three days old, views Alexander's restoration to the Yugoslav throne as "a better choice than that of Mr. Kostunica. Alexander would be more amenable to negotiations and discussions on Kosovo." But despite their shared royal heritage, Leka Zog, who lists his occupation as "king" on his passport, sees Kosovo as "a wall to come between us. Should the Albanians in Kosovo decide to unite with Albania, then I shall fully support them." His pledge is not just talk. In 1997 he attended a rally wearing military fatigues and brandishing an Uzi, and last year he was arrested on arms-related charges in South Africa. His chances of recovering his family's throne seem even more remote than Alexander's. In a 1997 referendum on the restoration of the monarchy, 35% of the population voted in favor. But in recent municipal polls the monarchist party mustered only 2.5% of the vote.
Another man in Alexander's position may have put it best. "An exiled king is a rather pathetic figure, often the butt of injustice and easy jokes," Simeon of Bulgaria mused in a Time interview some years back. "I have tried to live a normal life and with dignity." While they wait for the ultimate job offer to come through, the monarchs-in-waiting of the Balkans could do worse than follow that advice.
— With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic / Belgrade and Anthee Carassava / Athens