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Malice At The Palace

By Russ Baker

The Sunday Times Magazine

February 8, 2004


Life is good in the Serbian royal palace. Located in Dedinje, the most expensive neighbourhood of Belgrade, the grounds include a forest that seems to stretch to the horizon with no human habitation in view - a remarkable amenity just 10 minutes by car from the centre of a crowded metropolis of 2m people. Aside from the royal palace, with its colourful Kremlinesque decor, there's the Palladian-style white palace with its world-class art collection, expanses of meticulously kept lawns, a newly renovated swimming pool and a magnificently frescoed private church.  

 The present occupants of this splendid complex are Prince Alexander Karageorgevich, the British-born-and-educated pretender to the Serbian throne (and a great-great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria); and his wife, Princess Katherine, a Greek-born commoner he married in 1985. If Shakespeare was right when he said "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," how much uneasier must Prince Alexander be, knowing that his recently launched campaign to have Serbia declared a constitutional monarchy with himself as king is opposed by many Serbs, including close members of his own family? Most prominent among them is his second cousin once removed, Elizabeth, who was born in the palace. The dispute between these two has all the earmarks - and teeth marks - of a Balkan intrigue, mixing politics, religion, family pride and greed.

 Alexander, a pleasant-looking 58-year-old of modest stature, argues that what is good for him and Katherine is good for the country. On my most recent visit to the palace, he greeted me in a sitting room lined with priceless art and mint-condition French first editions. A maid appeared with petits fours and coffee in a blue Royal Worcester cup with a tiny chip on the rim. 

 Under the communist and proto-communist regimes that ruled Yugoslavia from 1945 to 2000, the crown was banished. Why bring it back now? Alexander quickly warms to his favourite topic. "Monarchy brings stability," he says. "It has brought stability to many countries in Europe. After so many failures here, one needs stability."

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 I first met Elizabeth, who looks two decades younger than her 67 years, at a lunch with her friends in a popular Belgrade restaurant. Over traditional tasty and fatty Serbian meat and cheese dishes, it became clear that this was a royal underdog. Elizabeth, I was informed, had been shut out of her birthright but refuses to accept her fate quietly. Adopting the aura of a Serbian Princess Diana, she devotes herself to a variety of good causes, working from a rented apartment in downtown Belgrade. While opposing Alexander's grab for the throne, she says that she cares little about regaining her title, although she can think of a few things she'd like to get, starting with some respect and acknowledgment from her cousin for her branch of the family.

 Alexander and Elizabeth share the tough genes of a 19th-century pig-farming tycoon, whose dark countenance earned him the nickname Karageorge (Black George). Karageorge became a national hero after leading an uprising against the Ottoman Turks, who had dominated the region for over 400 years. In 1918, following the end of the first world war, Karageorge's grandson, King Peter I, unified the lands that would become Yugoslavia. In 1934, when the next king, Alexander I, was assassinated in Marseilles, his eldest son was underage,so Alexander's first cousin, Paul, was named senior regent. Paul lived in the royal complex, where his three children, including the youngest, Elizabeth, were born.

 With the onset of the second world war and an impending Nazi invasion, the family went into exile. After the war, Marshal Tito's triumphant communists formally banned the family, stripping them of citizenship and confiscating their possessions. Among the spoils was a vast real-estate empire - centred on the palace complex in Dedinje, but embracing numerous properties scattered throughout Yugoslavia. Today, those holdings are worth more than $2 billion.

  As communism waned in the 1980s, popular opinion seemed open to the return of the royals. "There were great expectations when they started to arrive," said Dragan Zivojnovic, history professor at Belgrade University and author of a three-part biography on King Peter I, the current Alexander's great-grandfather. Those expectations have given way to disappointment, and even ridicule, as the royal slugfest between Prince Alexander and Princess Elizabeth heats up. "This is a typical Serbian domestic fight without any restraint," says Alexander Apostolski, the royal correspondent with the establishment newspaper Politika. "Even to us, it doesn't make any sense."

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 Prince Alexander, born in 1945 in a hotel room at Claridge's in London, had King George VI and the future Queen Elizabeth II as godparents. A pot of Serbian soil was placed under his bed and Winston Churchill declared the room sovereign Yugoslav terrain. The boy spent his formative years in boarding schools and military academies. He was 25 when his father, King Peter, died from complications associated with alcoholism. At 27, he married Princess Maria da Gloria of Orleans and Braganza, a member of the imperial family of Brazil. They had three sons. Alexander spent much of his adult life pursuing the varied business and social opportunities presented to displaced royalty.

 For Elizabeth, life in exile was about two things: redeeming her father Paul's name, and not following in his conservative footsteps. Her father, as senior regent, was a reluctant ruler. He attempted a complicated dance with Nazi Germany to forestall an invasion, a policy that led to a British-backed military coup, Paul's exile from Yugoslavia and his vilification in his beloved Britain, where he had many friends and relatives, including his sister-in-law, the Duchess of Kent.

 Paul and his family, including the young Elizabeth, endured difficult years in exile, several of them in the Kenyan bush. Eventually they settled in Paris, which Elizabeth remembers without affection. "If you don't have a lot of money and you don't represent something, it's nothing," she says. "You're sort of a joke. People expect you to be stuck up and want to pull you down, or they are overly obsequious, which is equally irritating." Finding a proper mate was not easy. "There wasn't a prince of the right age who was single, anywhere in Europe," she says.

 Elizabeth ran off to America with an older businessman, Howard Oxenberg; a daughter, Catherine Oxenberg, gained fame, ironically, for her role in the soap opera Dynasty. Two other marriages followed, one to a Briton, Neil Balfour, the other to Manuel Ulloa, a dashing former Peruvian prime minister. In between, there was a whirlwind romance with Richard Burton - "He was charming and entertaining but not when he'd had an entire bottle of gin," she recalls. She was a friend of JFK, sparking intense rumours about their closeness. Despite her flamboyant lifestyle, she found time, in 1980, four years after her father's death, to arrange the publication of a book that made an impressive case for his vindication.

 At that time, no member of the royal family had set foot in Yugoslavia for nearly four decades. Curious about the land she had fled when she was four, Elizabeth used her husband's diplomatic connections to finagle a day trip to Belgrade in 1987. One sight of the palace where she was born changed her utterly. "Then [my husband] became largely irrelevant," she says. "I think that was the whole purpose of our meeting: he brought me back home. It was predestination."

 Soon she was shuttling back and forth from New York. Anticipating the violent unravelling of Yugoslavia, she plunged into humanitarian work, bringing religious leaders together and organising medical and other relief. Much to the delight of the public and media, the youthful, pretty princess attracted the attentions of suitors of all ages, including noted poets, writers and artists. Her trips to the land of her forefathers were less popular with her cousin Alexander, who was on record as declining to return unless he could stay above politics - in the role of king of all Yugoslavs. At a social event at Claridge's in 1990, he flew at Elizabeth, demanding to know why she was spending so much time in Yugoslavia.

 The next royal to visit the old country was Alexander's uncle Tomislav, who moved into a family estate outside Belgrade and began implicitly endorsing the Milosevic regime's nationalist rhetoric. "I was horrified," Alexander recalls. In an attempt to forge a united front, Elizabeth set up a "family unity" meeting at the London Hilton with Alexander, her brother, and Tomislav. But Alexander was busy building his own links with opposition activists, including Zoran Djindjic, a young reformer who would later become the first post-communist prime minister.

 "Things were hot," Alexander recalled. "There was the Slovenian crisis. [War with] Croatia was about to start. I thought, 'I'll contact everybody. Let's talk.'" In October 1991, Alexander arrived in Belgrade to a tumultuous reception. Elizabeth was on hand to welcome him. As expected, he was soon speaking out against Milosevic. He also convened an advisory "crown council". In the summer of 1992, he asked for government permission to visit the palace, but was rebuffed.

 On October 5, 2000, a huge popular uprising ousted Milosevic. Within five months, a new government had given Alexander citizenship. Elizabeth had more trouble; it took 18 visits to the federal archives to turn up her birth certificate. In July, Alexander and Katherine invited Elizabeth and her longtime adviser, Dragan Babic, to Oplenac, the family estate outside Belgrade. According to Elizabeth, Alexander said he'd been working to get a government commitment on when the palace would be returned to the family. Stonewalled by the legalistic president, Vojislav Kostunica, Alexander and Katherine persuaded the prime minister, Djindjic, to promise before a blaze of cameras to look into the matter immediately. Katherine then declared, according to Babic: "When we come back here, we'll take care of the family, especially you, Elizabeth, because you're always here for us." Indeed she had been. When other family members opposed the marriage, Elizabeth had defended Alexander's right to marry a commoner; later, she'd served on his advisory privy council.

 Elizabeth attended the ceremony where the government temporarily handed over the palace to the Karageorgevich clan. She assumed this meant the whole family. The next day, she heard of a press conference to which she had not been invited. She and Babic rushed to the palace to find Alexander and Katherine sitting in a hall filled with hundreds of journalists, domestic and foreign. Standing behind them were Katherine's family members. She was dumbfounded: nobody else from the Karageorgevich family was present. With mounting unease, she took a chair near the couple. In answer to questions from reporters, Alexander said that nobody had yet moved into the palace, pending a government inventory of the premises. As to who would eventually live there, Alexander replied obliquely that a "decision about the inheritance has not been made yet".

 As soon as the conference ended, Alexander exploded with rage at Elizabeth. "He comes to me like a madman," Babic recalls. "He drags me into a room and starts screaming, 'This is my press conference. What the hell is she doing here?'" Dismayed by this scene, Alexander's chief of staff, a young Serbian émigré named Viseslav (Sima) Simic, resigned. Two weeks later, Alexander was given the palace keys, and Elizabeth, through a lawyer, proposed a family sit-down. Elizabeth came to the point: she wanted a couple of rooms in the white palace to live in, and a couple more for her foundation's offices. "I had to make a decision, and I said no," recalls Alexander. "This is not her branch. She has her heritage elsewhere."

 As Elizabeth saw it, her connections to the white palace, the smaller of the two royal dwellings, couldn't have been clearer. Her father, Prince Paul, had supervised its completion and she had been born there. Alexander seemed to be nullifying Paul, who had looked after his father, young Peter, after his grandfather's assassination. "[My father] was by far the most intelligent, educated, most wise family member," Elizabeth says. "He started a wonderful art collection that he gave to the nation, spoke many languages, was well read... He was impeccable." So why deny her? "They were jealous," says Elizabeth's friend Babic, "and wanted to remove any competition."

 Palace insiders take a different view. "Every royal family in the world has its own rules," said Gavrilo Doshen, a top aide to Prince Alexander. "[Elizabeth] publicly states that she does not recognise the family rules and does not recognise the crown prince as head of the royal house."

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 The stakes in the dispute are very high. The royal palace, the larger of the compound's two dwellings, was the vision of Alexander's Russian-educated grandfather and namesake. A cross between Byzantine and Serbian medieval architecture, its design was heavily influenced by the Kremlin; the interior is graced by exceptional handcrafted decor, patterned walls and ceilings. The basement is especially impressive. "We come down here for drinks after dinner with guests," Alexander explained as he gave me a tour. There's a re-creation of the throne room of Ivan the Terrible. And one of the Balkans' first private cinemas, where Tito liked to watch westerns.

 The elegant white palace is surrounded by manicured lawns and flowerbeds.

Both Tito and Milosevic conducted state business in what was once Elizabeth's bedroom. But the real treasure is the art collection amassed by Elizabeth's father, a world-renowned collector and founder of the country's national museum. Although prevented from making an inventory of what's left of Paul's personal collection, Elizabeth puts the value of the paintings alone at more than $40m - a figure Alexander's aides call wildly inflated.

 An oxidised Poussin that Elizabeth estimates to be worth $2m to $4m seems to have migrated to the royal palace. But among the works still on display in the white palace are several Canalettos, a Boucher, a Delacroix, a possible Rembrandt (the palace notes that it might be by one of the master's students), and a Veronese of a reclining nude, situated above a crimson divan that is believed to have served as the ever-amorous Tito's "casting couch".

 Elizabeth and her brother, Prince Alexander of Paris, say that the art is rightfully theirs to do with as they see fit. "By law, you cannot sell the cultural heritage abroad - you can sell it here or keep it." The crown prince has proposed a solution: a new law that would keep the paintings in place, but compensate Paul's heirs from Serbian coffers. To nobody's surprise, the crisis-plagued government has dragged its feet on resolving the dispute.

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 Amid all the talk of preservation and rights and responsibilities, it is impossible to ignore that most enduring motivation: money.  The royal palace, despite its opulence, is a bit of a fixer-upper. During my visit, Alexander showed me a number of worn treasures - a wedding chest depicting Alexander the Great heading into battle; a Gobelin tapestry falling apart; a fresco in which Christ's forehead has been punctured by a bullet fired by a liberating Red Army officer. "Everything needs restoration," he says. To address these and other concerns, Alexander and Katherine travel abroad to raise money from diaspora Serbs scattered in large numbers across the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and elsewhere.

 It's a time-honoured tradition. The exiled royal family, which fled with virtually nothing, has long depended for survival on the largesse of well-heeled sympathisers. Alexander's father, the exiled King Peter, sold his mother's emerald-studded tiara. "My dad did a minimum of consulting with banks," Alexander recalls. "My grandmother's trust fund was minimal." And when his father died, "I never got a penny. Not even his watch." Hence his relatively modest standard of living for much of his life, sustained by fees from board memberships and consulting. According to relatives, Alexander and Katherine's finances began to improve markedly as their return to Serbia approached.

 By 1999, Alexander was raising eyebrows by staying at New York's premium Pierre hotel, and showing his cousins an American Express Centurion Blackcard, awarded to select customers who charged at least $150,000 in the previous year. Elizabeth's brother says the prince told him the card was a gift from Spiros Latsis, a Greek shipping tycoon who had become a patron of sorts. "He's surrounded by people who have a lot to gain," says Prince Vladimir, a son of Alexander's uncle Andrej. "I only know his wife is very, very orchestral in finding sponsors for their cause."

 Family members who openly disapproved of Alexander's second marriage to a divorced Greek commoner still question Katherine's influence. In their accounts she appears as an almost Shakespearian character, scheming, avaricious, power-hungry. Even her charitable activities, as patron of several humanitarian groups and her own foundation, come in for criticism.

 Some foreign donors, whose aid largely benefits the country's crippled health-care system, complain about her eagerness to take credit for their benefactions. A former close aide of Alexander's echoes these complaints. Viseslav Simic met Alexander in Washington, DC, knew him for a decade before joining his staff, and worked for the royal couple during the crucial 10-month period leading up to and including their return. "He might be a relatively good person by himself," says the aide, "but he's so influenced by her. She totally overwhelms him and doesn't allow him any manoeuvring room. She's more desperate to be queen than he is to become king." Princess Eva Maria, the widow of Alexander's uncle Andrej, recalls an experience when Katherine and Alexander visited her in Palm Springs, California, several years ago: "She asked me if I knew where King Alexander's gold was. It was so bizarre." Legend had it that King Alexander had spirited the country's gold reserves out to Switzerland but, says Eva Maria, "There's no such thing. I told her that, and she said, 'Yes, there is - and you know where the gold is.' I was incensed." (Requests for an interview with Katherine were declined.)

 In the poisonous atmosphere, even the most outlandish-sounding stories gain currency. These include claims that the Serbian authorities halted the prince's private jet and removed paintings destined for abroad - where they would supposedly be replaced by fakes. Alexander says the story is a fabrication. "Why would I tarnish my reputation by showing up at [the] airport with the paintings?" The constant barrage of charges and countercharges does little to bolster Alexander's principal claim about what he will bring to the country as monarch: financial acumen, based on his business experience, and the ability to create unity in a divided society.

 Now other Karageorgevich relations have shown interest in their hereditary rights, and small wonder: the current Alexander's grandfather, King Alexander I, was one of the richest men in Europe when he was assassinated in 1934. He owned vast real-estate holdings in Yugoslavia, including three gold mines, a 280,000-hectare estate in Macedonia, and prime beach-front resort property in Montenegro. The settlement depends on the vague wording of an agreement between the family and the government. This document states that the palace complex, its buildings and contents are to be "used by Prince Alexander II Karageorgevich as the head of the Royal House of Karageorgevich, and by the other members of the Royal House of Karageorgevich, usage... shall be regulated on the basis of the practice of the Royal House... and the Family Codea".

 Alexander's relatives say he violated a standing agreement to keep them informed of any deals. "I only found out about [the government decree] from the internet," says Prince Vladimir. "He's playing solo violin. He's writing new rules and regulations as he goes along. He automatically assumed control and held the rest of the family at bay." Vladimir, who lives near Hanover and whose business card lists two addresses - including an ironic reference to the palace in Belgrade - was further angered by the exclusion of cousins from the website's family tree. He was more disturbed when he asked why Alexander had a diplomatic passport proclaiming his royal title while Vladimir couldn't get a normal passport. "He told me I am mistaken and that he had no title in his passport, nor did his wife or children," says Vladimir. "Unknown to Prince Alexander, I had seen the passports and seen quite clearly the titles inside them. When I challenged him about this bold-faced lie, he exploded and tried to tell me the title 'His Royal Highness' [in Serbian] was not a title."

 Alexander's claim may be further diminished by the fact that his father cut him out of his will. The roots of the father-son dispute lie in a battle for control of the Serbian Orthodox Church, a key underpinning of the royals.

During Tito's reign, a breakaway faction of the communist-controlled church emerged in the US. King Peter backed it; his son did not. In 1967, Alexander came to visit his hospitalised father and persuaded him to renounce the renegade church. Family members would later ask whether the king's signature was coerced; in any case, the incident tore apart the parental bond. The real issue, many say, was that Alexander thought backing the mother church would hasten a post-Tito return of the monarchy. (Notably, the church today supports restoration.)

 When King Peter died, he left three-quarters of his estate to Alexander's mother, Alexandra, one-quarter to the renegade church, and essentially nothing to his son. Alexandra had no will, but Dragomir Acovic, Alexander's privy councillor, says that does not matter: "According to the laws of the country, one cannot disinherit a son or daughter." Alexander has sued the executrix of his father's will twice,unsuccessfully, over the matter.

 It doesn't help that the will's executrix is the California-based Princess Eva Maria, who cared for King Peter when he was ill. After he died, she became vastly more powerful in the Karageorgevich clan by marrying Peter's youngest brother, Andrej. "When I first met [Alexander] he was a rather attractive young man, although quite arrogant," says Eva Maria. "[But] when his father was ill, he came just once - with his uncle. He has never written a letter or thanked people who helped his father." Relatives were outraged recently by Alexander's public remembrance of his father in Serbia's national chapel.

 Alexander admits that his recent call for the creation of a constitutional monarchy is a turnabout from 2001, when he sounded happy just to be coming "home".  "I couldn't come in like a steamroller," he tells me. "So we introduced ourselves in a respectful manner." Now, however, after voters failed three times in a row to elect a president, and with parliament dissolved, Serbia, he says, craves a strong guiding hand. "The king does what a good president should be doing. He doesn't take sides. He brings people together."

 Unity, however, is a remote prospect. In August, Alexander was dis-invited to a foundation-stone-laying ceremony when the country's president objected to his attendance. Alexander issued a statement: "The fact that a high-ranking state official decided to set out conditions as to where and on which occasion... an heir to the throne might show up in his own country and among his own people gives rise to regret but also concern." In some studies taken before his return, a quarter of the public supported restoration. Recently that figure had fallen to 5%, yet in one TV phone-in, more than 80% voted yes on the monarchy. 

 Alexander has had trouble establishing a commanding monarchal image. In a country full of tall, striking people, he is of moderate stature, and his wife is short, squat and decidedly ordinary-looking. In pictures of the couple she often appears awkward, with an almost excessive smile, and Alexander is shown on television following her as she hands out gifts in hospital wards. Worse is Alexander's widely reported slowness to learn his own language, although he told me he spends 90 minutes a day in lessons.

  If a popularity contest were held today, Elizabeth would unquestionably win.

 Ordinary Serbs seem to like everything about her, not least her fluency with Serbian and her resilience - an important point with a people who have endured so much. "Elizabeth is the heroine of most TV shows about the royal family," says the journalist Apostolski. "She doesn't hide the fact that she's a wild and explosive character who grew up in the deserts of Africa."

 When I asked Gavrilo Doshen, a top aide to the prince, about Elizabeth's behaviour, something the prince won't publicly comment on, he declared: "After her three civil marriages, it's on account of the prince's goodwill and beau geste that she still holds her royal title." She does not seem to need the title. When I visited her in her city-centre duplex, I saw the small but powerful fiefdom she has assembled. From an office downstairs, her aide-de-camp, Babic, runs a veritable Elizabeth Inc. She raises money for a group helping orphans and disabled children. A new venture will subsidise budding young artistic talent. She has written two popular children's books and has a line of cosmetics. And she is in demand. While we chat, she takes a call inviting her to a Serbian expat ball in Vienna. Alexander is not invited.

 Elizabeth's supporters can be harsh in their judgment of Alexander. "There's no royal house, no crown, no monarchy, no king, nothing," says Babic. "Who the hell is he? He's a self-proclaimed nobody." Elizabeth's brother agrees. "When he was born, his father wasn't king," he says. "In 1944 [Peter] signed away all rights and prerogatives to Tito. As a result, he broke the dynastic line. That means there is no more dynasty. All that exists is the Karageorgevich family." Alexander and Katherine seem committed to an impossible straddle: fending off family members while preserving a trace of domestic harmony. Last year, they invited many relatives (including Elizabeth) to attend their Slava, a traditional Orthodox feast. Few came. And at a magazine party in July, the royal couple made a beeline for a group picture with Elizabeth, who is shown grimacing.

 Cousin Elizabeth may be winning the PR war, but Alexander is a skilled political infighter. Several months ago, his crown council came up with a new proposal to settle the question of who owns the palace complex: give it back to the Serbian people, permit tour groups and government functions on the grounds - and let Alexander and his heirs live there. Upkeep would be the responsibility of the state. In support of this solution, the palace told local media that it was necessary to prevent other family members from doing untoward things with the property. "I'd hate to see this become a hotel," Alexander says.

 Princess Eva Maria insists that reason and grace may still triumph: "It could be worked out. You have a good-sized family, but a lot of property there. If you're not greedy, it can all be done in a nice, amicable way." Asked about the future of the monarchy in 2001, Alexander said: "It is up to the people and politicians to choose." But in recent months, the head of his crown council has said that no referendum is necessary for restoration to proceed. Which goes to prove that, having earned his stripes in Balkan intrigue, Prince Alexander Karageorgevich apparently has what it takes to survive as a royal in today's world.