18th Jan 2019

Simeon sues Bulgaria over restitution row

  • Bulgaria's former king Simeon of Sachs Coburg-Gotha served as prime minister between 2001 and 2005 (Photo: Viktor Giltyai)

Bulgaria's former king Simeon of Sachs Coburg-Gotha, who made history by serving as prime minister between 2001 and 2005, is suing his fatherland at the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg because the current government has frozen the restitution of property he claims is heritage from his ancestors.

"To my knowledge, the complaint against the acts of parliament that imposed a moratorium on the restitution of the former prime minister's real estate, has been submitted in Strasbourg," Mincho Spasov, a senior member of Simeon's party NDSV told state radio. The former monarch himself refrained from comments.

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The dailies Trud and 24 chasa reported he had also asked the Supreme Administrative Court in Sofia to annul a ban a on logging in some 1,500 hectares of forest that Simeon has been restoring in the alpine Rila Mountain, some 60 kilometres south of Sofia.

The contentious issue stems from a 1998 ruling by Bulgaria's Constitutional Court, which annulled a 1947 Communist law to nationalise the former royal property. Critics say the abolition of the nationalisation law doesn't necessarily imply restitution, which would require a separate law.

They also argue that large chunks of the estate restored to Simeon and his sister Marie-Louise were actually owned by the former housekeeping service of the palace, and so was state property. In his rare comments on the issue, Simeon has quietly but firmly objected. He has donated the bulk of a park around his Vrana palace near Sofia to the local municipality keeping the building and a garden around it for himself.

The contested holdings include Vrana and another small palace in the hunting estate of Krichim, some 115 kilometres to the southeast, a mansion in Rila and two hunting chalets close to it, together with large swaths of forests. The only undisputed piece of property is a country house in Banya, central Bulgaria, which Simeon is reportedly very fond of.

Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, once a bodyguard of Simeon and whom the monarch raised to the senior ranks of politics, has led the effort to reverse the royal restitution. Mr Borisov's party and its allies in parliament backed a moratorium on it last December.

Under Bulgarian law, the Constitutional Court ruling has only unlocked the restitution. From there on, Simeon had to obtain documents for ownership for each and every piece of property from the respective local authorities.

This process advanced smoothly while Simeon was still in power but turned cumbersome in 2005 when voters reduced his party to a junior partner in a Socialist-led three-way coalition.

The restitution then turned into an uphill battle for the 73 year-old king when his NDSV didn't make it to parliament in the 2009 polls and he retired from politics. A court in the city of Plovdiv recently rejected his claim for the Krichim palace.

Mihail Ekimdzhiev, a respected human rights lawyer in Bulgaria, told Trud Simeon stood good chances of winning in Strasbourg. "Regardless of the controversy whether the Constitutional Court ruling restores the ownership right, there are subsequent administrative acts of mayors and regional governors which have taken force and recognised Simeon and Marie-Louise as rightful owners," he told Trud. "They have paid taxes for this property for years."

"From this point of view, the parliament's moratorium over the holdings which the state has itself ceded is a brutal infringement of Simeon's and Marie-Louise's property rights," he added.

Mr Ekimdzhiev cited a similar case in which the Strasbourg tribunal ordered Greece to pay more than €13 million in indemnities to Greece's former King Constantine.

Simeon II acceded to the throne at the age of six in 1943 when his father Boris III died shortly after allying Bulgaria to Nazi Germany in World War II. He reigned under regencies until 1946, a couple of years after the Communist takeover, when the royal family was exiled following a Soviet Army-supervised referendum that abolished monarchy.

Having settled as a businessman in Madrid, Spain, Simeon first returned to Bulgaria in 1996 to a tumultuous welcome by more than one million of people who crowded the streets of Sofia. Five years later he set up his National Movement Simeon II and won the 2001 elections to head a coalition government with an ethnic Turkish party.

But he could not live up to the expectations Bulgarians pinned on his charismatic personality or to a controversial promise to dramatically improve the economic situation within 800 days.

Simeon helped usher the country to EU membership by signing its accession treaty in 2005. The bloc admitted Bulgaria in 2007. Under his watch, it joined NATO in 2004. Many Bulgarians still respect the king as a rare example of tolerance, dignity and subtle manners in the country's modern politics.

Mr Borisov, a former policeman and a karate black belt, owned a firm that Simeon had hired to provide his security in 1996. Upon taking power five years later, Simeon raised Mr Borisov to number two in the interior ministry, a post the latter used as a step-stone to found a party of his own and become mayor of Sofia nine years later.

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