Yugoslavia, the political centrifuge of the Balkans, is spinning its constituent nations into tenuous independence. Long-standing religious and ethnic animosities have finally erupted into bloody internecine warfare, and it appears that nothing and no one can prevent this crazy-quilt entity of three major religions, three alphabets, and at least five proud national identities from rushing headlong not into the 21st century, but rather back into its own dark, violent past.

The Western news media have, by and large, already assigned the Serbs a lion’s share of the blame, because they retain in power a reactionary hard-line Communist named Slobodan Milosevic; they prefer a centralized Yugoslav government propped up by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army; they carry the baggage of centuries of Turkish oppression, a mysterious religion—Eastern Orthodox Christianity—and cultural backwardness; and last, because they’re, well, Serbs. Compared to the supposedly democratic, Westernized, enlightened Slovenes and Croats, the Serbs and their culture appear to many American journalists, to use H.L. Mencken’s devastating description of the American South, to be the “Sahara of the Bozart.”

Enter the prince and the patriarch—not quite riding white horses, but still wearing white hats.

It will certainly surprise, perhaps even shock those American journalists and other citizens who meet Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic to discover an urbane, personable, stylish man in his 40’s. Prince Alexander is given to colloquialisms such as “fed-up” and has a delightful, down-home sense of humor. He hardly fits the stereotypical image of the rough-hewn, unlettered Serb or the regal personality more familiar, albeit off-putting, to American democrats: formal, stately, above-it-all. Nor is he a political wallflower. “I’m not a politician,” he told a gathering of Serbian Orthodox in Washington last May. “I’m the unifying force.”

Though born abroad after Josip Broz Tito’s Communist partisans dethroned the Yugoslav monarchy at the end of World War II, Alexander regards himself as a Serb, though also quixotically as a Yugoslav. Descendant of King Peter I of Serbia (1903-1918) and, from 1918, the new kingdom later known as Yugoslavia, Alexander is the rightful claimant of the erstwhile Yugoslav throne. Lest this seem too fanciful or even silly to anti-monarchical Americans, the prospects of his return to Belgrade as king are not as remote as may appear at present. As Yugoslavia proceeds to its destiny as the black hole of the Balkans, Serbs and Croats alike may look to any potential source of political light and stability—even a monarch from the Karadjordjevic “dynasty.”

That certainly is Alexander’s hope. “My role is kind of like a big ambassador” for democratization and cooperation in a post-communist Yugoslavia. “It’s very important to have Yugoslavia,” he insists, since the demographics in that land allow for no viable alternative. Given the sizable 12 percent Serbian minority in Croatia, for example, Alexander questions where one would draw the boundaries of an independent Croatia or Serbia. The European Economic Community, he warns, would not tolerate six new, cantankerous, little nations in southeast Europe. Alexander also points, perhaps naively, to Belgium and the United Kingdom as successful examples of multiethnic European states.

This pan-Yugoslavism softens Alexander’s commitment to Serbian nationalism without, however, betraying his Serbian, or Orthodox, heritage. He displays the Serbian red-blue-white colors proudly when, for example, he pledges to his Serbian-American audience: “One thing I assure you: Kosovo will always be our territory.”

But the prince tempers this ethnic pride with a prudent sense of justice. “I’m very proud to be a Karadjordjevic,” he says deferentially, “but I don’t want our nationalism to be used to kill people. . . . It would give me no pleasure to bash an Albanian.” Further, referring to the unseemly communist face that the Serbian Socialist Republic still projects, Alexander confesses, “I don’t feel proud to be from Serbia, when we keep producing propaganda rags like Politika.”

What to do, then? Like the grandfather after whom he was named, King Alexander I (1921-1934), Prince Alexander is committed to the cause of Yugoslav unity and peaceful cooperation. Unlike his grandfather, who imposed a dictatorship in 1929 to achieve this end, the prince tirelessly promotes democracy in his family’s native land through a return to constitutional monarchy. “I want to see all these [political] parties talking to each other for the good of Serbia.” But more than Serbia. Alexander would have the Yugoslavs eschew the cynical politicians who use nationalism to advance sinister, divisive political agendas. That includes both Milosevic the Serb and the Croatian national leader, Franjo Tudjman.

In 1934, King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was, for all his troubles, assassinated in Marseilles by a Macedonian serving the Croatian fascist movement, the Ustashi. In 1991, Prince Alexander is not yet king. It’s a foregone conclusion that the Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Albanians—in short, all the non-Serbs in Yugoslavia—would not have him in the first place. He would be more realistic, in fact, to resign himself to waiting in the wings for the final curtain on Yugoslavia, the better to rescue Orthodox Serbia from the grasp of communists-turned-socialists like Milosevic. King of Serbia and its sister republic Montenegro, after all, sounds more appealing than crown prince of nothing.

If the youthful Prince Alexander is eager to return to his patrimony, the new patriarch of the eight-million-member Serbian Orthodox Church is already trying “in country,” as it were, to soothe the savage beasts of ethnoracism and religious bigotry. To be sure, this new patriarch is not exactly “new,” as in “young.” On December 2, 1990, the Serbian Orthodox Church chose Pavle, bishop of Rash-Prizren, as its first-among-equals. The 76-year-old was an unexpected choice.

A veteran of years of persecution at the hands of thuggish Albanians in Kosovo, Patriarch Pavle had to endure attacks on monasteries, the rape of nuns, and the desecration of Serbian cemeteries. And yet his first public statement as patriarch echoed the saintly Elder Zosima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov: “Love and unity . . . are not possible without fundamental repentance and sincere spiritual rebirth, both personally and corporately. For truly we are all to blame for everything.”

In the half-year since his ascendancy. Patriarch Pavle has certainly practiced what he preaches. In May, the debilitating, fratricidal schism among Serbian Orthodox in North America formally ended with the reconciliation of the disputing hierarchs; in Belgrade. It took the election of Pavle—respected as a holy man by Serbs throughout the world—to resolve the conflict after 28 years of bitter legal battles and divided families. Also in May, Patriarch Pavle joined his counterpart in the Roman Catholic Croatian community. Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, in a common appeal for peace in the mounting crisis between Serbs and Croats. “We appeal to all responsible people in political parties,” the joint statement reads, “especially those in power, to resolve conflicts justly.”

With no axe to grind against the Albanian irredentists in his former diocese or the perennial Croatian rivals. Patriarch Pavle—ascetic, apolitical, and accepting of everyone—may be precisely the kind of national religious leader that the embattled Serbs now need. Orthodox Christians in Yugoslavia and America may even begin wondering about the dual prospects of the patriarch and the prince serving alongside one another in a revived Serbian kingdom. This would represent a return to the ancient Byzantine model of symphonia—a close, working relation, or “harmony,” between an Orthodox monarch and the Orthodox Church in a unified society.

More realistically. Patriarch Pavle and Prince Alexander can at least provide voices of reason and moderation in a society that has begun to revert to barbarism. They are certainly worth hearing.