(Reuters) – Romania’s aged former King Michael delivered his first speech to parliament Tuesday since Soviet-backed communists forced him to abdicate more than 60 years ago, highlighting deep divisions over the country’s past.
While opinion polls show most Romanians do not want the monarchy back, post-communist leaders have tried to limit Michael’s influence, fearing he could erode their own power if given a platform.
“We cannot have a future without respecting the past,” Michael, 90 and looking sprightly in a suit and striped tie, told a packed parliament on his birthday.
“The royal crown is not a symbol of the past but a unique representation of our independence, sovereignty and unity,” said Michael, Europe’s oldest former monarch and one of the last surviving World War Two-era heads of state.
Parliamentarians from across the political spectrum gave the king, who was forced to quit the throne in 1947, a standing ovation before and after his speech and some even took pictures on mobile phones.
Michael’s speech was proposed by the opposition Liberals but opposed by the ruling Democrat-Liberals (PDL).
President Traian Basescu, who has close links to the PDL, has criticized the former king for leaving the throne, saying he was “Russia’s servant,” and did not attend the speech in parliament. Many PDL deputies did attend, however.
“This is a gesture of normality,” said Mircea Geoana, speaker of Romania’s upper house of parliament. “His Majesty’s presence 64 years after his last speech in parliament is proof that the communist era is a closed bracket.”
Romania is now a member of the European Union.
EXILE AND RETURN
But its record in World War Two and its aftermath still stir heated debate. The country fought alongside Nazi Germany and was occupied by Soviet Union, which engineered the removal of the monarchy, fearing it could be a rallying point for opponents.
Michael played a central role in a 1944 coup to overthrow fascist wartime leader Marshal Ion Antonescu, after which Romania broke with Nazi Germany and switched to the Allied side.
After communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed in a violent revolution in 1989, Romania blocked the first few visits Michael tried to make after decades of exile in Switzerland, Britain and the United States.
He finally returned to Romania in 1992 and only managed to regain his citizenship in 1997 after reformist President Emil Constantinescu took over from former communist Ion Iliescu.
Michael made several appeals for a restoration of the monarchy in the early 1990s. Iliescu deported him on several occasions and even deployed tanks on one occasion to prevent him from touring the eastern Balkan country.
Born in 1921 in his family’s Peles castle in the Carpathian mountains, Michael is a descendant of the German Hohenzollern dynasty and a cousin of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
The king still has many supporters — thousands wished him happy birthday on his website — and some gathered Tuesday outside parliament, a huge marble palace built in central Bucharest by Ceausescu.
Michael is to attend a concert Tuesday evening at Bucharest’s opera with several other European royals and is expected to greet supporters, who will be able to watch on a big screen outside.
(Additional reporting by Sam Cage; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
Reuters – By Ioana Patran
Former King of Romania addresses parliament for first time since 1947
Sitting resplendent on a throne-like chair King Michael I, 90, called for politicians to provide greater democracy and to restore the dignity of a country that has struggled to bring wealth and prosperity to all of its people since the overthrow of the despotic regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989.
The king had been afforded the rare privilege of addressing both houses of the Romanian parliament in honour of his 90th birthday.
“The time has come after 20 years to … break for good with the bad habits of the past”, said the king. Taking a swipe at the country’s present ruling elite, often chided for apparent self-interest and corruption, he added in 2011 “demagogy, selfishness and attempts to cling to power” should not have their place in Romania.
“All united, we have to pursue our efforts in order to become once more respected and dignified”, he said in a speech that won a standing ovation and shouts of “Long live the King!” from some MPs.
Michael ruled Romania as a child from 1927 to 1930, and again from 1940 to 1947, overseeing a tumultuous period for the country which saw the country fall under fascist then communist rule, while in the meantime switching sides in the Second World War.
In 1947 he abdicated after the communist government said it would shoot 1,000 people if he failed to step down. Michael left for exile and was only allowed to return in 1992.
Despite the genuine warmth the king’s address received not all politicians were happy with his presence in parliament.
President Traian Basescu refused to attend, describing Michael’s abdication as a “betrayal” and calling him “Russia’s servant”. Although there is little sentiment in Romania for the re-establishment of the monarchy some politicians resent the king’s willingness to use his position to highlight their shortcomings and the country’s problems.
After his address to parliament the king attended a glittering birthday meal attended by members of other European royal families, including King Carl Gustaf of Sweden and Queen Sofia of Spain.
Moreover, Romania’s former king added the policy is a “double-edged sword”, because it can bring democracy and freedom, but it can also do harm to the citizens if it is exercised in contempt of ethics, if it customizes power and disregards the fundamental purpose of the institutions of state.
King Michael went on saying that the Royal Family will continue to sustain Romania’s fundamental interests, together with the country’s continuity and traditions. “The royal crown is not a symbol of the past but a unique representation of our independence, sovereignty and unity,” he added.
His speech was commented by the foreign media. King Michael still manages to create a small storm in the political arena in Romania despite his age, according to Le Monde. “Despite being 90 years old, he still shakes the Romanian political class,” wrote Le Monde about the Romanian King’s speech. Read the entire article here.
King Michael delivered a speech in front of the Parliament on his 90th birthday, over 60 years after being forced to abdicate by soviet-backed communists. Several European royal families are invited to celebrate this day in Bucharest. You can check the participants’ list here.
Irina Popescu, firstname.lastname@example.org
(photo source: Royal House of Romania)
There was no direct mention of any politicians, some of whom had formed the king into exile and were now sitting in the front row, applauding warmly. Prominent among them was Ion Iliescu, a former Communist Party official who became Romania’s president in the first decade after the fall of the regime.
The king’s speech was “constructive and useful, but also necessary,” Mr Iliescu said afterwards. He appeared to have forgotten his decision as president to ban King Mihai from the country, fearing that the popular ex-king might challenge his pseudo-democratic regime.
The current president, Traian Basescu, is also no big fan of the monarchy. He was out of town today, meeting EU officials in Brussels. But it is unlikely he would have attended the speech even if he had been in Bucharest. Asked yesterday if he had any message for the king’s birthday, the president said: “A message to say what?”
Mr Basescu has not hid his contempt towards the king, whom he once accused of “betrayal” for having abdicated two years after Soviet troops entered the country and appointed puppet regimes. Mihai says that the Communist leaders threatened to execute 1,000 students unless he agreed to abdicate.
But Mr Basescu contests this account, pointing to old files from the Romanian secret police (Securitate) that he says suggest that the king was never threatened and was able to negotiate the terms of his departure, taking with him several courtiers, pieces of jewellery and other valuables. Yet many historians say that accounts from other Soviet archives indicate that the king was indeed blackmailed.
Mihai has since regained his properties in Romania and seems to have accepted that he is not about to be restored to power. The same has not always been true for his son-in-law, Radu Duda. In 2009 Mr Duda announced that he would run for Romania’s presidency (amid an outcry from royalist groups he withdrew his candidacy).
An example has been set in neighbouring Bulgaria, where the former King Simeon II entered politics in the late 1990s and became prime minister in 2001. In Romania of 2011, however, the king’s speech looks like too little, too late.