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
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."
* * * *
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."
* * * * *
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
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
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
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."
* * * * *
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
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
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
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
* * * * *
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.