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The Queen and Central and Eastern Europe: A personal relationship

The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has led to an outpouring of tributes from around the world. In this regard, Central and Eastern Europe has been no exception. Such a response is emblematic of a human relationship that increasingly transcended politics.

September 19, 2022 - Niall Gray - Analysis

Photo: Loredana Sangiuliano / Shutterstock

Queen Elizabeth II passed away peacefully on Thursday September 8th at her Scottish residence of Balmoral. Ascending to the throne at the age of 25 in 1952, she was the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch. Her long rule has left an indelible mark on her country, with her presence viewed by many as an integral and enduring part of British cultural life. Despite this, Elizabeth’s role as sovereign also led her to represent the UK in a unique way around the world. A recent tweet from the British foreign ministry stated that she was “Our greatest diplomat”. Her hundreds of foreign visits certainly lay credence to this claim. While much of her travels focused on the UK’s traditional allies and Commonwealth realms, the necessities of the job meant that she often visited countries and regions ambivalent or even traditionally hostile to the very idea of monarchy.

Central and Eastern Europe offers perhaps the best example of these mixed realities for Elizabeth. Her long reign over seven decades made her an often ironic constant for a region faced with much upheaval throughout the 20th century. Of course, the queen was born in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in 1926. She would subsequently grow up faced with the realities of a continent increasingly dominated by communism. These developments would have posed more than just a theoretical threat to the young princess. For example, the death of her relative Tsar Nicholas II at the hands of the Bolsheviks in 1918 would loom over the British royal family for many years.

These events were influenced by the unusual actions of Elizabeth’s grandfather, King George V. Bearing a strong resemblance to his Russian cousin, the ruler had maintained a close relationship with his relative throughout much of his life. Upon hearing news of Nicholas’s abdication in March 1917, he even attempted to send an emotional telegram declaring that he “shall remain your true and devoted friend”. However, the king would ultimately abandon any attempt to bring his troubled relative to Britain. Faced with a restless urban population increasingly receptive to Bolshevik ideals, George would set out to reimagine the monarchy as an institution closer to the people.

High position – high values

This lesson from the region would go on to greatly influence the queen’s approach to diplomacy in two key ways. Firstly, Elizabeth was keen to follow the example set by her grandfather and quickly made herself more accessible. This is exemplified by her “royal walkabouts”. First greeting citizens on foot during her tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1970, she proved eager to maintain this human approach throughout her foreign visits. Secondly, the tsar’s fate would also encourage a resolute belief that the British monarchy should place itself above divisive politics. The queen’s notorious silence on public affairs has now even resulted in claims that she was the “model constitutional monarch”.

This pioneering style would be in place in time for Elizabeth’s first regional visit to Yugoslavia in October 1972. Supporting efforts to boost relations in the era of détente, she found herself uniquely placed to strengthen ties with this equally neutral socialist state. Her five-day visit took her all over the country, from the crowded streets of Belgrade to Marshal Tito’s retreat in the idyllic Brijuni Islands. Despite such ceremony, the queen did make the effort to meet Yugoslavs of all backgrounds. Footage from Elizabeth’s visit to Zagreb shows her talking with citizens as alert government minders look on. While such interactions were naturally limited, the queen’s visit did seem to have a lasting impact on the country as a whole. One newspaper article even claimed that UK diplomats saw the tour as a “public relations triumph”.

Of course, such success would also be tempered by the realities of engaging with some of the region’s most controversial figures. For instance, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu’s visit to Buckingham Palace in June 1978 would go down as a highly embarrassing chapter in British diplomacy. Eager to sell aircraft and weapons to Bucharest, the foreign ministry would hatch a plan to impress Ceaușescu and his wife through an audience with the queen. Elizabeth agreed despite personal reluctance, with the dictator embodying a rather ironic caricature of monarchic excess. Valuables were hidden from the light-fingered Ceaușescus and the queen even famously hid behind a bush to avoid talking to them. Such events exemplify the principles behind Elizabeth’s measured diplomacy. Faced with personal and public outrage, the sovereign distanced herself from proceedings within the confines of her duty.

Between the past and the future

These experiences would go on to inform preparations for a charm offensive following the end of the Cold War. The queen would devote a large part of her foreign tours throughout the 1990s to the region’s young democracies, starting with Hungary in May 1993. Her visit to Buda Castle and its Széchényi Library would also be supported by an unusual appeal to the Hungarian people’s hopes for the future. Her second speech in the country’s parliament would boldly declare that “You have the right to reclaim your place in the mainstream of European history and culture.” A key part of such tradition herself, these words exemplify the monarch’s crucial diplomatic role in an era of reconciliation.

While such rhetoric came easy in Budapest, this was clearly not the case one year later in Russia. Kremlin spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov commented on the trip’s significance, stating that “We realise that the British queen would never have visited a Communist country.” This was of course changing but the centre of the former Eastern Bloc still proved a tricky matter. Elizabeth was forced to reckon with the past during preparations, as much of her jewellery was directly connected to the Romanov dynasty. Such symbols of the tsar’s reign had previously caused disquiet during Gorbachev’s UK visit in 1989. Former British Ambassador to Moscow Rodric Braithwaite recalled the two figures “stiff and ill-at-ease: constrained perhaps by the ghost of the murdered Tsar.”

The queen and her government proved determined to avoid such awkwardness as she touched down in Moscow on October 17th 1994. Her clothing over the four days included a new tiara and jewels that could not be construed as a statement regarding her relative’s untimely fate. Elizabeth also remained silent during a visit to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, the traditional resting place of the tsars. The Russians discussed in detail plans to rebury Nicholas II within the building but were simply met with polite nods from the sovereign. The queen proved more animated whilst commemorating Soviet wartime soldiers, meeting crowds in St. Petersburg and hosting a reception aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. Even Yeltsin’s well-publicised dislike of the event’s Scottish fare could not dampen a profound spirit of optimism. Describing the future of official Anglo-Russian contacts soon after, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd boldly claimed that “From now on they are going to be normal.”

Back-to-back visits to Poland and the Czech Republic in March 1996 would round off this intense period of regional engagement. Much like in Hungary, a statement refined for royal sensibilities was made regarding the importance of these fledgling free societies. Elizabeth’s declaration in parliament that “Poland needs Europe, but Europe also needs Poland” was met with great applause. Despite such excitement, then Krakow Mayor Józef Lassota later recalled the queen’s “calm impression”, smiling as she greeted citizens in the city’s old town. Similar success was also found in Prague, where dinner with Václav Havel saw the queen talk up the country’s democratic aspirations. The city’s picturesque Charles Bridge would set the scene for the Czech population’s wider welcome for the diplomat monarch.

Queen of the world

A decade would pass before Elizabeth would make her final tours of the region in 2006 and 2008. Embarking on visits to the Baltic states and Slovenia and Slovakia respectively, it is hard not to get the feeling of a job well done. All five nations had achieved EU and NATO membership by 2004 and such engagements only further confirmed their newfound position within the democratic world. Many of these visits’ activities also come across as relaxed by royal standards. Indeed, it seemed that the region now felt itself more at ease to engage with the monarch in a more personal way. While a visit to Vilnius revealed to the queen her 15th century Lithuanian roots, the Slovenian government indulged her great love of horses and organised a visit to the famous equestrian village of Lipica. This reality exemplifies a thoroughly mutual relationship now characterised by the values the queen upheld throughout her public life.

Overall, it can be argued that Central and Eastern Europe provided Elizabeth with her toughest diplomatic challenge. By accident of birth the monarch found herself estranged from the region in more ways than one. The fate that befell her imperial Russian relatives in 1918 would ultimately go on to set the tone in the area for seven decades. However, this troubled history would also play a pivotal role in informing the queen’s measured approach to diplomacy over her own 70 years of rule. Lessons from the region would be used to reforge links that would ultimately transcend narrow politics.

Such bonds with the area’s people and politicians are no doubt responsible for the mass outpouring of grief following her death. While local communities have organised remembrance events, the region’s capitals have for once found themselves in strange agreement. Russian President Vladimir Putin has even paid tribute to Elizabeth’s “authority on the world stage”. Such consensus speaks to the global legacy left by the late queen, whose diplomacy showcased what role a human touch can play in overcoming old divides.

Niall Gray is the copy editor and proofreader of New Eastern Europe. He is also an AHRC-funded History PhD candidate at the University of Strathclyde.

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