Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Albania: The Man Who Would be King

More than forty years after his father died in exile, Leka Zog is back in Albania and is still keen to reclaim his kingdom
By Sokol Shameti

The man who calls himself "the King of Albanians" is back among his people, yet he faces an uphill struggle to persuade them to restore him to the throne.


On his last visit to Albania in 1997, Leka Zog gained the support of only a third of the country's voters in a referendum held to gauge public opinion on the monarchy - but he has declared himself ready for another.


The 63-year-old son of the late exiled king Ahmet Zog has only recently gained amnesty over a conviction for his role in violent protests that broke out after the 1997 plebiscite.


He arrived in Albania on June 28 with his son, also called Leka, his wife Susan and 93-year-old mother Queen Geraldine, a Hungarian. But he also brought a cache of more than 100 weapons with him - including anti-personnel mines and anti-tank missile launchers - which, he claims, are part of a collection dating back to before the Second World War. "Another part of the collection is deposited in the United States and it will be brought home soon," said Zog.


The authorities are still to decide on the weapons' fate, but the country's top policeman, Bilbil Mema, said that Zog would almost certainly not be allowed to hold the arsenal at his new home, which is less than 50 metres from government offices.


Speaking to the media after he arrived in Tirana, Zog said that one of his main aims was to bring his father's remains back home to be reburied. He would not be drawn on personal financial issues and would make no comment on the gold his father was believed to have taken with him upon his exile.


Hundreds of supporters - including Albanians from Kosovo and Macedonia - turned up at the capital's Rinasi airport to greet the chartered Boeing 727 that brought the royal family back to their homeland.


Among those waiting to greet them were two ruling socialist deputies as well as senior opposition politicians, while Zog met Albania's prime minister Pandeli Majko shortly after arrival. The country's mainstream parties appear to have softened their attitudes towards the would-be monarch recently, to avoid alienating their voters.


Zog's return followed an invitation from 40 deputies across the political spectrum and widely publicised correspondence with the Albanian writer and Nobel prize nominee Ismail Kadare.


In 1939, when he was only two days old, Zog's family fled the country ahead of an Italian invasion. Following the Second World War, the ruling communist regime declared Albania a republic and denounced the former king as a national enemy.


Ahmet Zog took the family first to Greece, then to Turkey, Egypt, Britain and France, where he died in 1961. His son has spent much of his life in South Africa.


His first return to Albania in 1994 was marred by a passport dispute, which saw Zog confined to his hotel after wrangles with then-president Sali Berisha's government.


In 1997, when the country was swept by near-anarchy following the collapse of pyramid investment schemes, Zog enlisted the help of the pro-monarchist Legality Movement Party to organise a referendum on whether the monarchy should return. He later claimed that the result was manipulated.


In July of that year, Zog dressed in military uniform complete with pistols and led a protest rally in which one person was later killed. He left the country once more, and was convicted in absentia of armed rebellion and given a suspended three-year prison term.


Today, some supporters claim that a constitutional monarchy may improve the country's economic situation and change its world image. "King Leka is the only hope for us," claimed Robert, who was prosecuted during communist rule. "We have exploited all the options - the left- and right-wing dictatorships of Enver Hoxha and Berisha respectively and so-called democracy."


But overall it seems that the public is not that keen, with the younger generation far from impressed. Economics student Andi reacted with surprise when IWPR asked if he had welcomed Zog's arrival. "Why should I come out to welcome a self-proclaimed king?" he asked.


Perhaps aware that he does not enjoy unqualified support in his homeland, Zog had appeared to be casting his net wider. In 1997, he publicly declared his backing for a Greater Albania, although he now seems to have modified his stance. He told his most recent news conference in Tirana that he doesn't see the unification of Albanians as a territory-based concept.


If he aspires to be a leader, it would appear that he has a lot of work to do. Granted, Albanian schoolchildren are no longer taught that monarchy was an evil enemy of the people and that his father was a traitor - indeed, Tirana's main boulevard even bears the former monarch's name. Yet there appears to be little expectation that this still-mysterious figure will bring prosperity and progress to the country. And his people have long memories.


"Do we need him and another disturbance like the one in July 1997?" asked Pali, a middle-aged man shopping at a street kiosk.


Sokol Shameti is an editor with Albanian Klan magazine.


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