Rolling Up The Red Carpet – Leka of Albania: The Comeback King (Part Three)

Some things never change, especially in Albania. During the post-communist era, Albanian politics was still the same minefield of corruption, backstabbing and intrigue that Leka’s father, King Zog, had barely managed to survive.  Add to this combustible concoction a full-blown economic crisis in 1997 and Albania was a recipe for disaster no matter who ruled over it. The only truly great leader the country ever produced was the Ottoman fighting Skanderbeg. Unfortunately, he died half a millennium ago. Leka was no Skanderbeg, for that matter he was no King Zog either. He would have been a bad choice in the best of times, but with the country beset by chaos, neither the country’s population nor other politicians was willing to take a chance on restoring the monarchy. He had no experience in managing the economy or cutting political deals with the opposition.

Leka’s idea of compromise was the barrel of a gun. That was up until the shooting started, then he headed back into exile. The days of omnipotent kings ruling by decree were a thing of the past in Europe. Leka would have struggled to survive in Albania’s tumultuous political and economic environment. Heading back into exile was a good career move following the failed restoration referendum of 1997, though Leka certainly did not see it that way. It was miraculous that a referendum had been held in the first place. Albania’s only experience with royalty had been bittersweet and short lived (King Zog reigned from 1928 – 1939). Leka’s return had been thwarted by a democratic referendum. His future monarchical prospects now looked as bleak as they ever had been. This still did not stop Leka from longing to return to a homeland he barely knew.

Almost Infamous - King Leka

Almost Infamous – King Leka

A Marginalized Man – Running Away From Home
After all the sensationalism and spectacular failures that had accompanied Leka on his two return trips to Albania there was little left for him to do other than wait. What exactly he would wait for was anyone’s guess? There was no longer a communist government to overthrow or oppose. The failure to restore the monarchy by referendum had dealt Leka’s hopes of ever ruling his homeland a mortal blow. Adding insult to injury, Leka was sentenced in absentia to sedition and given three years in prison for the role he had played in leading a protest march turned riot following the failed referendum. This was another sentence he would never serve in Albania. A failed pretender or prisoner in exile, there did not seem to be much difference between Leka’s role inside or outside Albania. He was a marginalized man, who was adept at doing little more than putting on royal airs. This served to inflate his ego, but otherwise did him little good.

Leka was leading a star-crossed existence. Escaping from the abyss he had dug for himself during his time in Tirana during the 1997 referendum looked close to impossible. That was until geo-politics intervened in the form of the Kosovo crisis in 1999. Fortune finally smiled on Leka. His longstanding support for a Greater Albania incorporating the nation of Albania as well as those ethnic Albanian communities living in adjacent areas (Kosovo, western Macedonia and northwestern Greece) finally began to pay dividends. He was instrumental in helping raise millions of dollars among the Albanian exile and émigré community in the western world to provide ethnic Albanians in Kosovo with humanitarian relief and weaponry for the Kosovo Liberation Army. This endeared him to Albanians both inside and outside the country.

The End Is Near - Leka late in life

The End Is Near – Leka late in life

Above & Beyond Politics – An Unforgettable & Unimportant Role
In 2002, one of the most bizarre comeback stories in modern times came full circle when 72 members of the Albanian Parliament voted to ask Leka and his family to return. A law recognizing the royal family’s rights was passed not long thereafter. Leka, his wife and son along with his mother, the former Queen Geraldine returned to Albania, but not quite in triumph. A crowd of thousands were expected to greet them, but only a few hundred showed up for what turned out to be a sobering welcome. After his return to Albania, Leka played a very minor role in politics. He went so far as to say, “I am above all political parties, even my own.” He had become a figurehead turned father figure who most Albanians saw as a cross between a novelty and a non-entity. He saw himself as important, few others shared that sentiment. A few years after his return, Leka completely renounced any role in politics. Instead, he spent time at his home in Tirana, a mansion owned by an émigré Albanian-American multimillionaire.

Leka always managed to land on his feet, despite his many flaws. By turns, arrogant and naïve, strong willed and foolishly stubborn. His strongest trait was perseverance in the face of incredible odds. This was his greatest talent. It eventually led him back to Tirana, but not to the throne. He was little more than a bit player in Albania. A character actor in the most literal sense, playing an unforgettable and unimportant role. His return was bittersweet. The Dowager Queen Geraldine died in 2002, the same year that the family returned to Albania. Two years later his wife Susan succumbed to lung cancer. Leka’s health declined during the years that followed. He took his greatest satisfaction in the exploits of his son, Leka II, who like his father, graduated from the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Otherwise, Leka kept a low profile, the exact opposite of his life prior to returning.

The Man Who Could Be King - Leka II

The Man Who Could Be King – Leka II (Credit: IndianRoyalist)

Reaching The Limit – A Guest In Someone Else’s Home
After his return, Leka finally realized that he had reached his limit. He was never going to be an all-powerful monarch, only an afterthought. His greatest achievement was returning to live out the last years of his life in Albania. The act of going back and not being forced out was a sign of his modest success. In 2011, Leka died at the age of 72. He had not spent a single day of his life as King of Albania, at least not in an official capacity. In his imagination, the situation was reversed. Leka always saw himself as the king, separated only by history from his country. The reality of his years in Albania told a different story. Leka had lived out the last years of his life in someone else’s home, a guest of honor in a country that was never be his own.

From Nothing More Than His Imagination – Leka of Albania: The Man Who Would Not Be King (Part One)

Back in my college days I had a friend who had grandiose ambitions of making deep, meaningful films. The kind of art house fare that is the preserve of pretentious pseudo-intellects, whose main attribute is a high opinion of themselves. This certainly explains the cinematic designs of my friend, who made possibly the worst films I have ever seen. Imagine a young man standing in front of a mirror with a zombie like expression plastered on his face. Then suddenly stock footage is shown of a freight train steaming down a track with its whistle blaring. This was a surprising take to say the least. My friend tried to attach himself to other misunderstood film directors who were shunned by the unenlightened public. He stated that his main influence was the German director Wim Wenders, who made the second worst films I have ever seen.

Not long thereafter, my friend became a former one, as he recoiled angrily at my questioning of his incomprehensible films. He grew increasingly haughty and arrogant, viewing anyone who could not understand his artistic endeavors for their greatness as little more than provincial fools. As a sort of laughable thought experiment, I used to imagine my former friend graduating to self-declared greatness. He was the kind of guy who would have awarded himself an Oscar, if that accolade had not been beneath him. My friend was akin to a self-declared monarch who had no throne to ascend. He would have made a great would king of Albania. If it did not already have one.

Like Father Like Son - King Zog & Leka

Like Father Like Son – King Zog & Leka

Setting A New Course – A Royal Mess
This friend came to mind while I was reading about Leka, Crown Prince of Albania. Here was a man who aspired to royal greatness, but whose efforts. whether by a perpetually unenlightened Albanian public or the vicissitudes of geopolitics were thwarted. His attempts to assume what he considered his rightful place among European royalty were not successful. That never stopped Leka from having a high opinion of himself, to the point where he saw Albania as his personal inheritance. This was stretching the limits of credulity. Leka spent almost none of his childhood in the country and never set foot on Albanian soil until he was 48 years old. Nevertheless, Leka was nothing if not ambitious, something he shared with his father, King Zog.

It was Zog who created a monarchy out of nothing more than his imagination and then proclaimed himself King of Albania. He single-handedly founded a European house of royalty just a decade after such exalted dynasties as the Habsburgs and Romanovs were ruined by revolution. An impressive accomplishment, even if some did not take Zog seriously. Leka had the same sort of delusional grandeur as his father. Being heir to the throne his father created only stimulated a need for recognition. He thought himself born of greatness, a man who might lead Albania out of the Stalinist wilderness in which it was lost. This was enough to set his life on one of the strangest courses any prospective monarch has ever followed.

Mothers Finest - Queen Geraldine with Leka I

Mothers Finest – Queen Geraldine with Leka I

At Home Abroad – The Albanian Globetrotters
The heir to the throne of Albania was born in the early morning hours on April 5th, 1939 in Tirana at the Royal Palace to King Zog and his wife Queen Geraldine. While the king was Albanian through and through, the mother’s background was a quixotic mixture of Hungarian aristocratic and American blue blood. The heir was given the name Leka, which is the Albanian form of Alexander. Unfortunately for the infant heir, only two days after his birth the royal family was forced to flee the country. The Italians were tired of propping up Zog’s profligate corruption. They invaded when Mussolini decided to invade in the hopes of recreating what he believed would be a new Roman Empire. Leka and his mother were put into an ambulance and transported through the mountains to Greece. Zog would soon follow with over a hundred members of his retinue in tow. Along with him came ten cases of valuables. These, along with the gold reserve of Albania’s treasury, which Zog had secretly been moving to England and Switzerland, would ensure he and his family would live comfortably on the proceeds of his theft.

Zog never returned to Albania. It would be over fifty years before Leka would return to the land that might have been his to rule. He would have no historical memory of Albania to base his future claims to the throne upon. That never stopped Leka from trying to get back to his royal roots. His lightning quick exile meant Leka would spend much of his life globetrotting. He and his parents would live in Great Britain at several addresses. The most notable of these was an entire floor of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in London. They then spent several of his formative years as the guest of another embattled monarch. King Farouk in Egypt. At an English school there, he became boyhood friends with the heir to Bulgaria’s throne. Leka was educated at a variety of highbrow institutions, including Sandhurst in England and the Sorbonne in France. His education at Sandhurst led to Leka receiving a military commission in the British Army.

The Man Who Would Not Be King - Leka I

The Man Who Would Not Be King – Leka I

The King & I – Would Be Monarch
After his father died in 1961, Leka was proclaimed King of Albania by the Albanian National Assembly in Exile at a hotel in Paris. This state of royal affairs fit the strange pattern of Leka’s life as a would-be monarch. He was the nominal choice to lead the country by Albanians abroad, but their support and his title meant next to nothing. Albania was a hermit nation locked in the iron grip of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha. A hardline communist dictatorship that did not allow outsiders in or its citizens out. Leka had no military or political power with which he might attempt to overthrow the regime. All he could do was look on helplessly from abroad while tending to dubious business interests. Leka was said to trade in commodities. His definition of commodities would give new meaning to that word. Leka’s life was about to enter a much more bizarre phase.

Click here for: A Pistol Beneath His Pillow – Leka of Albania: The Failed Restoration (Part Two)