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.
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.
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.
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.