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Ousted Balkan royals find a warming trend back home

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The doors that slammed behind Balkan royalty exiled after World War II are being slowly pried open from the Black Sea to the Aegean.

No one seems to be seriously considerng dusting off old thornes, but recent visits by former royals suggests there may be some middle ground in a region where grudges - and loyalties - are not easily erased."Nostalgia, fogiveness - call it what you will. But what it really shows is a crisis of confidence in the government and the oppositon," said Janusz Bugajski, director of East European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"People get disenchanted, and all of a sudden a former king looks good," he said.

The downfall of communism and its state subsidies knocked away the economic underpinnings of the region - already Europe's poorest corner. Then the disintegration of Yugoslavia brought four years of warfare to the heart of the Balkans, causing further economic damage.

Enter the monarchs.

Two descendants of the former Hapsburg rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire were in Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, last month to lay a wreath at the site where their great-uncle was assassinated in 1914, an act that led to World War I.

In February, Romania welcomed back its former king, Michael, who was banished by the communits more than 50 years ago. Only a few thousand people turned out for the arrival - somewhat of an anticlimax since it came five years after his first return.

But the government, eager to gain some political mileage out of the king, has offered him one of the old royal villas if he decided to move from Switzerland. In return, they have asked Michael to help push Romania's bid for NATO membership.

In neighboring Bulgaria in April, crowds chanted the name of ex-King Simeon II on his second trip to his homeland from his home in Spain. Simeon acceded to the throne in 1943 at age 6. Three years later, the communists expelled the royal family.

Royalty is also a searing topin in Servia - the bulk of what's left of Yugoslavia and the heart of the former Yugoslav kingdom. some politicians have pushed the idea of a referendum on bringing back the heir to the Yugoslav throne, Aleksandar Karadjordjevic.

The idea has gained support as a way to bring some stability to the nation's unruly politics and economy. But Alecsandar may not be the right unifying force. Born in London, he speaks only haltng Servian.

Albania's self-proclaimed King Leka is also a stranger in his homeland. Lat month, Leka returned to the chaos-wracked country he left when he was 3 days old when his father, King Zog, fled the advancing Italian army in 1939.

"I hope to add my presence and weight to . . .help Albanian people come out of these problems," said Leka, now a businessman in South Africa.

He arrived a few weeks after the old royal palace was looted of everything down to the bathroom fixtures. But Leka's motorcade, escorted by police, was greeted by crowds waving banners and Albania's double-headed eagle flag.

It was a marked contrast to his brief visit in 1993, when police threw him out for trying to enter the country on an old royal passport.

"Britain isn't the only place with a soft spot for their royals," said David Williamson, co-editor of DeBrett's Peerage, a London-based tracker of noble family trees. "It seems to be coming out strongly now all throughout the Balkans."

Almost everywhere.

Greece's exiled King Constantine is fighting to overturn a 1994 order to confiscate royal property, including family graves. He plans to take the case as high as the European court of Human Rights, his London-based spokesman, Bob Leaf, said.

Constatine is still banned from returning, although in 1993 he made a brief visit by yacht. It was quickly trailed by Greek warships.

"There's no momentum," said Leaf. "It looks like he's not coming back to Greece anytime soon."