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.

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

One would think that life as an exiled heir to a royal throne would be rather relaxing. There is little to do all day except meet with fellow emigres who generally agree with everything you say. Answering correspondence and taking calls are your most taxing pursuits. Surrounded by sycophants while living in semi-posh circumstances, you stay on as the guest of a dictator who guarantees your perpetual safety. You play a waiting game, hoping that circumstances beyond your control finally take a turn for the better. The heady days of dodging revolutions, ordering enemies imprisoned or shot and fleeing from mass movements that threaten your well being are a thing of the past, as is your claim to a throne which has long since been abolished. This is unfortunate but compared to the alternative – life in prison or execution – it’s not bad work if you can get it. That is unless you were Crown Prince Leka, heir to the Albanian throne. Leka aspired to greater things than being a royal has been. Enjoying the good life in Spain as a guest of Generalissmo Francisco Franco was never going to be enough for Leka.

A Royal Family - Leka flanked by his wife Susan and mother Geraldine

A Royal Family – Leka flanked by his wife Susan and mother Geraldine

Armchair Warrior – Taking Target Practice
Crown Prince Leka was a man with the military on his mind, if not in his blood. The “Royal Minister of His Court” said from the time Leka was born, there had always been a pistol tucked beneath his pillow. He was being subconsciously and at other times not so subtly groomed for a militaristic upbringing. He was educated at the British Military Academy at Sandhurst. He then received a commission in the British Army as a Second Lieutenant or perhaps it was his imposing physical presence. At six feet, eight inches he certainly towered over everyone around him. Maybe his martial instincts stemmed from an effort to overcompensate for being heir to a throne not many in the western world took seriously. Whatever the case, Leka’s life was devoted to the martial arts. His main profession was as an armchair warrior and arms dealer, though publicly he claimed to be selling industrial and agricultural equipment to Middle Eastern nations.

Whatever his real line of work, it is indisputable that Leka was able to accumulate his own reserve of armaments. This in turn gave him credibility as president of the Military Council for the Liberation of Ethnic Albania. Leka always denied claims that he was an arms dealer, stating that such rumors were the product of Albanian communist propaganda that tried to undermine him. Later in life, he would sue and win two defamation lawsuits against French magazines that had referred to him as an arms dealer. As for his own collection of weapons, Leka needed these to protect himself from potential assassination. He feared throughout his life that the Albanian secret police were targeting him. There was certainly some truth to this story. Leka always professed a readiness to expel the communist government of Albania. Just how he might do this was open to question.

Keeping Up Appearances - Leka in suitable attire

Keeping Up Appearances – Leka in suitable attire

Armed To The Teeth – King For Less Than A Day
At his villa in Madrid, Leka trained or at least pretended to train liberation forces to free Albania from the communist yoke. This brought him attention from journalists and the Spanish government, which post-Franco did not need an Albanian pretender playing wargames on their soil or stating that he planned to overthrow the Albanian government. When a large arms cache was discovered in his home, the Spanish government forced Leka to leave the country. The next port of call for this pariah were pariah states, first Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and then apartheid South Africa. The only question for Leka was whether he would make it to southern Africa. When his flight across Africa stopped to refuel in Gabon, government troops surrounded it. The soldiers were under orders to detain Leka and deliver him to Enver Hoxha’s Albanian government who preferred his head on a stick rather than wearing a crown. True to his martial form, Leka appeared at the aircraft’s door brandishing a bazooka. Soon he was on his way to South Africa, where he and his Australian wife Susan would live until communism collapsed in Albania.

The ridiculous notion that Leka could someday reign as king became a possibility during the 1990’s as post-communist Albania was riven by economic shocks and political chaos. Only a man with pretensions to greatness, a massive ego and a daunting lack of diplomatic ability would have been arrogant enough to believe he could stroll into Albania and lead such an unruly nation into the bright uplands of democratic freedom. Leka was that man. For Albania, he was to become a royal pain in the ass. His first attempt to assume what he felt was his rightful inheritance took place in 1992. While trying to enter his homeland for the first time in over half a century, Leka produced a passport that had been issued to him by his own Royal government in exile. It listed his occupation as “king”. The Albanian authorities failed to see the humor in this quasi-official document, nor did they honor it. Leka was told that he would need a real Albanian passport, not a made up on. He was dutifully turned away. This only stiffened his resolve to return.

A Family Affair - Leka with his Australian wife Susan

A Family Affair – Leka with his Australian wife SusanA Family Affair – Leka with his Australian wife Susan

Optimistic Opportunism – Grasping For Power
All Leka needed was another opportunity. That opportunity arrived sooner than he might have expected. After pyramid schemes collapsed, leading to a financial crisis that destroyed the savings of Albanians, anarchy consumed the country. The government had trouble keeping any semblance of order. Shots were fired, people died, riots ensued. Albania was in complete turmoil. As the crisis worsened, Leka became a potential savior for Albania. A referendum was soon organized to decide whether Albania would restore the monarchy. Leka had high hopes that he would be victorious. His confidence was not shared by the masses. Two-thirds of Albanians voted against a restoration of the monarchy.

Leka was infuriated by the result and refused to accept it. He claimed the government had organized a campaign of voter fraud to defeat the referendum. He took to the streets with his supporters. After shots were fired, Leka’s stay in the country was short lived. Meanwhile, the populace was more concerned with their own personal financial distress than Leka’s failed power grab. He was forced to flee the country once again. In truth, the failed referendum may have saved Leka from an even worse fate. Albania was no place for political novices or pretenders to an obsolete throne.

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