Friday 1 June. A rainy day in Sofia. The interview with King Simeon Saxe-Coburg, leader of the National Movement Simeon II, is set at 19:00, in the Vranya castle in the outskirts of Sofia. Simeon II lives and meets his guests here.
Georgi Kadiev: How should I call you? Your Excellency, or Mr Saxe-Coburg, or maybe something else?
Simeon Saxe-Coburg: Whatever fits best the interview. You know that piece by Bernard Shaw, The Importance of Being Earnest, where Earnest is a name but also someone who is earnest. At the very end, it does not play any role by what name you call me.
I would like to start with some background for our readers. What made you return to Bulgaria after so many years in exile?
About a year ago, I had lunch with members of the European Parliament and we were talking about the elections in some ex-Soviet republic where only about 50 per cent of the population had voted in a recent election. One of the MPs said, "These people have no clue what democracy is if they do not vote, they are probably nostalgic about the past." At that moment, it occurred to me that Bulgaria is to hold elections in 2001 and that a large number of people would not vote. And I thought, "For God's sake—this should not happen in Bulgaria!"
Was there a final push to your decision, something that made you leap into politics, no matter what you gain and what you lose?
I would not say so. It was a long process that took several months. There is something else, too: there were rumours that I am returning to the country just to get back the family property, to sell it and have good life in Madrid. I found this so unfair... And also many people were telling me I should participate in politics. I finally told myself, why not—it might be for the good of the democracy if I make people vote.
Some of them will vote against me, but this is not important: they will vote, which to me is the main issue. I want people to participate in democracy. I often tell people: if they do not vote, they should not criticise afterwards.
You are known as a private businessman. How did it start?
You know, I had to make a living, and I also had a large family with five children of my own. When I turned 18, my mother (daughter of the King of Italy) asked me to look after the family property she inherited from her parents. So I started a modest portfolio management, on a family level. Then I became a member of boards of small companies, then bigger and bigger ones. It snowballs, you know, after one has been in business for over 40 years. But I have given up business now; you can't wear too many hats. I only follow a few of the companies I am involved in, because I am personally very close to them.
I am curious, what sector of the economy did the companies work in?
Mostly food and nourishment, also some were in banking. For example, I was for 13 years involved in a Spanish joint venture between the French concern Thompson and a Japanese concern in the field of consumer goods. I have worked for many years on sugar refining projects in Morocco and with Danone.
I would like to move on to politics now. Prime Minister Kostov said the best advice he had ever received was to turn the UDF [Union of Democratic Forces] coalition into a party. Are you considering turning the National Movement Simeon II into a party?
We are a movement at present and do not really have the time to consider changes. Once the elections are over, we will go over the different options we have and make a decision. But right now we have more important things to think about.
Do you have a feeling what the election outcome will be?
Those will be very interesting elections, and I hope a lot of people will participate. This will make a strong impression on the European Commission in Brussels.
What do you consider as the best-case outcome for your movement? Absolute majority, a smashing win?
Oh God, no, I always prefer to have some sort of coalition, to reach consensus. This is how I worked in business as well, I was never THE company boss, I was always working among people. I believe this is how my mind is set intellectually.
But what if you gain absolute majority?
I don't think this is a realistic possibility. I am very down to earth.
But, should this happen, would you decide on a coalition or one-party government?
One-party governments, I believe, do not work well in young democracies. In a well established democracy, yes—but not in Bulgaria. The more parties that participate and assume the political responsibility, the better. This way, more people will identify themselves with the ruling forces of the country.
Coalition governments are, in general, a lot less stable.
In countries like India, where you have 20 parties in government, yes, but here, if we have a good partnership, it should not be such a problem.
Well, even in places like Poland or Turkey, where only a few parties form the government, there are problems. The Balcerowicz party in Poland walked out of the government last summer...
Look, as we say in Bulgaria, the fish is still in the sea; it is too early and even too pompous to discuss such scenarios. Because, you know, we could get five percent. For all we know... It has happened in other countries.
I understand you have met with the leader of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms?
Yes, at the founding event of the Balkan Political Club which is run by ex-president Želev.
Did you also meet with other political leaders?
Yes, in the past; with the leader of the BSP [Bulgarian Socialist Party], for example.
And recently? I have the impression you avoid those meetings.
I don't. I just do not have the time right now for formal meetings. As for informal ones, I would not announce them. I believe that discretion has tremendous value.
You promise transparency in economics...
I would love to have transparency. My mother has taught me as a child to be very careful with money, especially with other people's money. This is something of my deepest convictions.
I see a slight conflict, though. Transparency in economics, but lack of transparency in other areas; for example, in the way your nominees for members of parliament were chosen.
Everybody talks about those nominees, as if there were 50 ways to choose them. We do it the way everybody else does it, but people pay more attention to us, probably because we are something new, something unknown. We are unusual, unconventional; I myself am a quite unconventional person. Even though I might look boring.
The process of nominating members of parliament in the UDF and the BSP is rather different. They run through internal elections in local structures, for example.
These are big parties. They have the local structures. We are totally new people doing something unknown.
Our clients do not seem concerned about your economic program or the people in the team. But they seem concerned about the political support for it.
You mean in the Parliament?
I mean from you personally.
I am a very calm person. I have spent almost all my life in the West; my democratic feelings are unquestionable. I have looked at events in the region from a wide perspective. I do not think it will be difficult for me.
Some of the measures in the program are quite difficult. There will be unhappy people, there will be dismissed employees, there will most probably be strikes. Are you ready for that?
We are getting out of the context here. We are not the government yet; I am not the Prime Minister yet. But it is clear: each political party assumes some damage from its policies. Each policy has its advantages and disadvantages. It does not make a lot of sense to discuss potential strikes now. Also, if we want to remain a democratic country following one and the same path, we cannot deviate more than five degrees to the right or to the left from the current economic policies. We cannot talk about big changes or some sort of radicalisation.
I would say your economic program definitely deviates by more than five degrees to the right.
It is one thing when you read it now and another thing when you implement it with your partners. This program is our wish list, so to say, but we know it will be different in reality. We were pressured from all sides to present a program. There is no law to make us obey, yet we decided to publish something. So we did. But do you recall a government that in its four years has done everything in its program by the book, by the letter and by the chapter? I don't, and I have been in politics over 50 years.
Some of the people in the economic team seem to be inexperienced for the job.
Everybody can make a mistake, even the most experienced person, so let's give the people a chance.
How long will you give them the chance?
We haven't even started yet.
Once you start.
I can't say. Am I a dictator to say that?
I am only trying to figure out how long the political support will last.
We haven't even been elected yet. Let's calm down for a while. When people are responsible, when they have good intentions and are not involved for their own benefit, chances are things will move ahead.
Is there a mechanism in place to control the members of your parliamentary group?
We expect responsibility from them, we surely need no loose cannons. We will go by the book, by the law. I am firmly committed to doing a good job and showing the world that Bulgaria is a proper Democracy.
Would you run for Prime Minister?
I can't say. We do not have the election results, we do not know the potential coalition partners. I find it immoral to talk about this at the moment.
In the Western democracies, usually the leader of the winning party becomes Prime Minister.
I agree, but these are well-established parties. This is not our case; we appeared a few weeks ago.
Why the secrecy? I think people would feel more confident with you as Prime Minister rather than someone else who is only supported by you.
I do not view the Prime Minister as God Almighty. He will be under the control of the Parliament.
It seems to me you prefer to put more power in the hands of Parliament. Why didn't you run for Parliament then?
For several reasons. I do not have parliamentary experience. Besides, by law, I am allowed to run in two counties only. This would insult the other counties. And I am not sure I could take the responsibility of personally vouching for the people on the lists in those two counties. And for another, more personal, reason: I have heard many accusations that I wanted to become king, but when I couldn't, I decided to run for President. Then, after I can't I run for member of Parliament, and if I miss this one, I will run for a municipal parliament, and so on, till I get elected something. So I decided not to run. Sounds funny but... I told you, I am an unconventional person.
Looks like you could use the same reasons not to run for Prime Minister?
This is how my mind is set. But I am also very pragmatic. I don't like being in a frame; I like being flexible. Never say never—that should be the motto of every politician.
Are we keeping the currency board then, or are we flexible?
I do not think we can be flexible with this one.
A lot of economists might have a different opinion on how useful currency boards are; Jeffrey Sachs, for example.
Yes, and I fully agree with his view. I realise the side effects of the currency board. But we, as a totally unknown political movement, cannot afford to be exotic. And, despite the side effects, there is a lot of reasoning in the currency board regime in Bulgaria. If we get out of this regime now, everybody will say we have no clue of what we are doing, everybody will think we are just trying to be interesting. And we should be very careful to avoid that. So far so good. I am saying it again: one should look at those issues with full responsibility and after consultations with the other political parties.
Your program provides for lowering of taxes and 0% budget deficit. Do you personally stay behind those numbers?
The program was prepared by the economists in our team. It would be very good if we could reach this. I have heard a lot of things; I don't understand, is it so wrong to have a balanced budget? I'd expect this to have a positive effect.
The program talks about optimisation of the public administration. It does not give any details on it, I haven't seen anything on the military either or on the police. Should we expect budget-cuts in those areas, dismissals maybe?
What you saw is only a brief compound of our economic goals. True, it does not talk about the way the public administration will be reformed nor does it talk about the army, which is such a difficult problem, bearing in mind our goal to join NATO. We did not want to be too detailed, people would see, "Look at them, arrived yesterday and already know everything." Easy, easy, easy... and things will move ahead.
You know, I read a lot, in several languages, have no time to read books twice, but there may be one book I did read twice. It is called Small Is Beautiful. This is my philosophy: small is beautiful. [Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, by EF Schumacher]
And finally, another difficult question: will Bulgaria stay a republic or become monarchy?
Oh, this is way out in the future. I do not think about this question. I am so often asked about it that sometimes I regret I was not born Simeon Borisov, not Simeon II, son of Boris III. So that people finally stop bothering me about this. By all means, I am a citizen of, and obey the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria.
Georgi Kadiev, 18 June 2001
All rights reserved. Copyright Internet Securities Ltd,
a Euromoney Institutional Investor Plc Company.
Georgi Kadiev, who performed this interview, is Editor-in-Chief of IntelliNews, a company owned by
Internet Securities Ltd.
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