THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

After 58 long years in exile, King Leka I of the Albanians has come back to reunite his troubled homeland. Well, that's the theory ... The reality is that as the Balkans descend once more into chaos, Leka is not the only king looking for a throne
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Consider it from the bodyguards' point of view. They've sworn on the crown of Skanderbeg - the symbol of Albania's Turk-slaughtering national hero - to protect King Leka I, the Balkan monarch who came home last month after 58 years of exile. Working conditions are difficult. Since the collapse of the notorious pyramid-investment schemes, Albania has become so lawless that President Sali Berisha has invited a UN-backed force of 6,000 troops to keep the peace. The looting of munitions dumps has made the Albanians the best-armed civilian population on earth, and in the capital, Tirana, gunfire is as common as birdsong.

Today's job is going to be tough. The king is off to Vlora, a southern city-port where the rule of law has collapsed, and armed rebel committees have replaced local government. It's the most volatile place in the country, and a huge, unruly crowd has turned up to see the prodigal monarch's return. And here's the really big snag: at 6ft 8ins, King Leka is the tallest man in Albania - since the emigration of the country's best basketball player, that is - and an easy target for an assassin's bullet.

Leka's royal guard is a mix of foreign mercenaries and hard-bitten Albanian mountain men - the sort of blood-feuding thugs that the lowland Albanians like to call "Chechens". But here, in Vlora, on a bright April morning, the guards are sweating and nervous: there's trouble in the air. In order to address the crowd, King Leka has moved dangerously close to the edge of a raised marble concourse, and he's inches from the steep drop to the pavement. Bodies surge around him as he tries to talk to his people but the crowd is in no mood to listen. Instead, 5,000 angry protesters are urging him to join in their anti-government chants: "Down with parliament! Down with Berisha!" they yell, before settling on a tub-thumping chorus of "Fuck You Sali!". Things are getting out of hand: everyone is running and shouting; rebel gunmen in the crowd spray automatic rifle fire into the air; nearby, a gang is hijacking one of the cars in the royal motorcade with a stick of dynamite. Vlora is on the brink of riot.

My First Meeting with King Leka of the Albanians takes place on the afternoon before his trip down south. As I reach upwards to shake his hand, I'm struck by his air of dead exhaustion. Rather than having the weight of the world on his shoulders, it seems to have been stitched to his face, dragging it down towards the carpet. "I have to go to Vlora tomorrow and it's going to be a pretty hectic day," he rumbles, in a level, arid voice that has the ghost of a South African accent. Being so massive, he's forced to duck under the doorframes of the dingy south-Tirana villa that's been his home since he stepped off the plane from Johannesburg on 12 April. It's not exactly Buckingham Palace - but since most of Tirana's inhabitants live in crumbling low-rise apartment blocks, he can probably count himself lucky.

The leader of Albania's monarchist Legalite Party, Dr Guri Duroliani, who has been working for Leka's return for five years, sits beside him, and delivers a speech about the extent of his majesty's fatigue. Leka has slumped into the armchair of the royal three-piece suite and fished out a fag from his ever-present pack of Rothmans.

Barring a failed attempt to return to Tirana in 1993 - Leka was ejected on the pretext that his passport listed his occupation as "King of the Albanians" - this is his first visit home since he was a baby. His exile has been spent dodging between Europe and Africa; in recent years, he has held court in a heavily armoured bungalow just outside Johannesburg, protected by a retinue of loyal bodyguards. The royal family comprises Queen Susan, their teenage son, also called Leka, and Geraldine the Queen Mother, the 82-year-old widow of King Zog. The family business - helped by Leka's godfather, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia - deals in coal, rice, tobacco and, occasionally, guns.

It is Albania's state of chaos that has given Leka the chance to regain his father's throne. Lobbied by Dr Duroliari, all 10 of the country's political parties signed a declaration allowing the king to return and do his bit to restore normality. Although he has yet to set a date, President Berisha has promised a referendum on the restoration of the monarchy and the future shape of the Albanian government. Leka is hitching a ride on the back of a massive social crisis, a crownless East European king who sees the re- establishment of his dynasty as a way of stabilising a fractious post- Communist society. It's a project bequeathed to him by his father, who groomed him for kingship from childhood.

"I spent a tremendous amount of time with my father," Leka explains, "and that is probably the basis of my geopolitical knowledge. He'd call me in when he was having a meeting, and I'd sit in the corner very quietly and listen to the conversation. After the meeting was terminated he'd call me over and say, `Why do you think I made this kind of decision?' and when I answered wrongly, he'd explain." Zog had his only son memorise population figures, geographical statistics and the GDPs of every country in the world. "We'd eat dinner at eight and he'd go to bed immediately after, and I'd join him in the bedroom. The conversation would last until midnight or one in the morning, and we'd cover the Balkans, naturally, and Albania in particular - in every aspect of politics, history, geography and human nature." It's a method that Leka has repeated with his own son. "It was a tremendous education," he re- calls, shaking off some of his tiredness and glowing with pedagogic nostalgia. "I know I'm biased, but I've met a lot of great men in my life, and he was the greatest."

Ahmed Zogu was born in 1895 in the north-Albanian town of Burgayet, the son of a tribal chieftain who acted as a Pasha - a regional ruler - during the Ottoman occupation. In 1924, 12 years after Albania had declared itself independent, Zog led a coup d'etat against the government and emerged from the struggle as president. In September 1928, he went one better and crowned himself King Zog I of the Albanians, beginning a period of autocratic rule that imported asphalt roads and electricity to the country but also brought a perilous financial dependence on Italy.

In search of international respectability, King Zog went a-wooing, and after being turned down by Princess Alexandra of the Hellenes, he got hitched to a wealthy Hungarian-American aristocrat, Geraldine Apponyi. It was the ultra-right-wing wedding of 1938: Hitler sent them a scarlet Mercedes. But the couple didn't have much time for long, romantic drives on the new Italian-financed roads: Mussolini's armies invaded the following April.

Zog, Geraldine and the three-day-old Leka fled to London and the relative safety of the Ritz. The royal family and their retainers occupied an entire floor of the hotel, and were said to have settled their bills with bullion from a chest containing most of Albania's gold reserves. The king left Enver Hoxha's Communist partisans to kick the Axis powers out of Tirana: the Communist administration took power in 1944, and by 1946 the family was banned from entering Albanian territory.

Later, the royal court enjoyed the patronage of Lord Parmoor and lived on his estate in Buckinghamshire. Little Leka was sent to Victoria College, Cairo, where Kings Simeon of the Bulgarians (see sidebar, page 6) and Hussein of Jordan were classmates - which must have created some interesting discipline problems. When King Farouk of Egypt was ousted in the military coup of 1952, Leka continued his education in Switzerland, returning to England at the age of 16 to become Sandhurst's second-youngest-ever cadet.

When Zog died in Paris in 1961, responsibility for the 17-strong royal household passed to Leka. With family finances in poor shape, the new king went in search of a less expensive home. "It was very hard for my mother," he reflects, "and so we took her to Madrid for a rest cure." They lodged with King Simeon. "And that's how I first met the Generalissimo." It was the beginning of a fruitful relationship: "Franco allowed us to go to Spain and granted us diplomatic immunity, and it also opened the doors to business opportunities." Opportunities such as negotiating with the Fascist government to buy 2,000 automatic rifles for the Saudi Arabian army. "I found Franco to be very knowledgeable," he reflects. "He often used to advise me, and he was certainly someone who knew his own people very well."

Leka is proud of his record of resistance against the Hoxha regime: "He kept on maligning me so I must have caused him some nightmares. Albanians were told that I was a drug trafficker, a pimp, an arms smuggler - you name it." But how seriously could Leka really have threatened the dictator? He likes to give the impression that he might have toppled the Hoxha regime single-handed, if only Nato had let him: "There were several attempts made in my father's lifetime to make it possible for him to return. We continued to fight for a free Albania until the Communist dictatorship eventually collapsed." Did this include armed resistance? "We fought in every way we could," he answers, rather coyly. Although he's surrounded by very real gunmen, Leka's language seems borrowed from the pulp westerns that form his recreational reading.

It was armed intrigue that got Leka expelled from Spain, once Franco had fallen from power: "In 1979 we were very close to..." a long, dramatically slow drag on his Rothmans "...overthrowing the regime through military activity - I won't call it anything else. But it was a combined operation - it involved external and internal forces." I express surprise that he was in touch with activists within Hoxha's army, and his majesty is amused by my naivete. "Oh, I had been in contact for a long, long time. But the fear of a lot of the Western powers was that if we overthrew the Communist regime we would destabilise the whole of the Balkans. So pressure was put on the Spanish government, and they gave me seven days to leave the country."

Rhodesia offered him asylum, but it was a short stay - when Robert Mugabe swept to power, the Zogs made a hasty exit: Mugabe's troops had been trained by Hoxha, and as the Albanian deputy foreign minister arrived in Rhodesia for the Marxist prime minister's inauguration, Leka's party fled south. "We would have been the best gift Mugabe could have for the government in Tirana," Leka claims. He also ran into difficulty during a stop-off in Gabon, where President Omar Bongo was only persuaded not to extradite him to Albania when Leka's bodyguards threatened to blow up the national airport with a bazooka they happened to have in their luggage.

We're talking espionage - Leka's favourite subject - and the king's shifting to a more anecdotal mode. "I ended up in jail in Thailand, you know," he ventures. Would he tell me about that? "Yeah, sure," he replies, lighting up. The tale concerns how an "unfriendly force" foiled his attempts to buy guns from the Thai army's chief-of-staff. These mysterious enemies took his contact off for a week's golfing holiday in an area with no telephones, and Leka was arrested. "Of course," he asserts, rather smugly, "when General Kriangsak got back, the unfriendly force involved was forced to retire, and I was taken out of jail. In fact, I spent the last few days of my visit as a guest in his home. We're still in touch."

Buying a house in Johannesburg and marrying an Australian designer, Susan Cullen-Ward, did nothing to quell Leka's military ambitions, and he maintains that the family was kept under constant surveillance by the Albanian Sigurimi secret police. "It was a constant game that we used to play everywhere," he explains. "I'll tell you about one particular incident which is always very amusing. Queen Susan and I were walking in Johannesburg and, as you know, the ladies like to window-shop. Every time Queen Susan stopped, I stopped, and our guards would stop. It was like a concertina, because behind them were operatives of the Albanian embassy, and behind them were the Serbs, behind them were the French watching the Serbs, and then we had another lot watching them."

Leka's family, now left behind in Johannesburg to tend his collection of weapons (Neolithic to modern), doesn't share his enthusiasm for setting the homeland to rights. "My mother is not as young as she was and she gets very upset when she sees scenes on television of what's been happening here. Both she and the Queen said, `Look, we feel ambivalent - obviously we're worried but, on the other side, you're doing your duty and we back you.' They're worried about my safety and the fact that we'll be gone for a long time. But once we've achieved some political stability, then the Queen Mother and the Queen can come and join me. Until then it's going to be very much a case of long-distance `I love you'." Conversely, 15- year-old Prince Leka is "gung-ho. He's very much aware of what's been going on and he's been raised the same way I was. He's been brought up to see Albania as part of his life."

Leka is a little gung-ho himself when it comes to Kosovo, the Albanian- dominated region of Serbia, jealously protected by President Milosevic. "I'm a great believer in the self-determination of nations," he declares, coughing a phlegmy cough, and points out that he's king of the Albanians, rather than Albania. He won't rule out taking the territory by force: "I would hope that wouldn't be necessary because the last thing I need is another war in the Balkans. But I would use every other method in the handbook. And the Kosovars know that without a strong Albania, reunification with the Fatherland would be difficult." Once Albania has been stabilised, he argues, "we can really start piling on the pressure".

This sabre-rattling raises the issue of Leka's relationship with the legitimate political process in Albania. Has President Berisha lured him here as a patriotic sideshow to distract a disenchanted public? Leka's dignity baulks at this interpretation, but he's guarding against manipulation. "It's fairly obvious that each party has its own agenda. Including Dr Guri here, I might add." Duroliani giggles and nods enthusiastically, and suddenly their organ grinder/monkey relationship seems less well-delineated. "But," Leka continues, "the King is above politics. They may want to use me, but I've never allowed myself to be used in the past and I don't think that anyone will be able to now - unless I want to be used."

For the moment, his mind is focused on tomorrow's excursion. "I must be seen to act as a factor of stability, and that's why I'm carrying that message from the depths of my heart. I'm going to go down to Vlora where the problems are still acute, and I'll carry the same message to the people there. Peace and unity, basically." He raises his palms in a gesture of openness. Trust me.

Then the leaden sigh of a weary monarch cues Dr Duroliari to request me to ask my last question. Is Leka worried that people will ask him for help he can't provide? "A lot of the Albanians have enough sense to realise that I'm really without any authority as yet," he reasons. "Apart from my moral authority." As we leave the room, Leka slips off his jacket, exposing his holstered pistol.

That night, I find myself in our hotel restaurant with Dr Duroliari. He's a dentist by profession, and spent the Hoxha years pulling teeth in America. Tiny and tweedy, the doctor is monarchism's acceptable face. He's exactly the same age as the king (58), and comes from a family with long royalist traditions. When he was 12, he mooned over a photograph of Leka: "He sent it to me in the post from Paris," Duroliari says, proudly. "I also have an album of photographs of the wedding of Charles and Diana, and I'm inspired by them. I'm also proud that Britain has such a woman as Her Excellency Mrs Thatch." Finishing his coffee, Duroliari invites us to photograph Leka setting out for Vlora at 7.15 the next morning.

By 7AM, Leka's team of bodyguards is mobilised outside the royal villa, their suits decked with armbands in the black-and-red Zogist colours. The king's car pulls up, a limousine that once belonged to Enver Hoxha. Kenneth, a murderous-looking cohort with slicked-back hair, asks us not to take photographs while the guns are being loaded into the car, and thanks us for our co- operation as brightly as an air hostess. Like his master, he wears a ring with the seal of Skander-beg - Leka's reward to his closest associates. There's movement inside the villa, and the king appears, looking sullen and worried. Dr Duro-liani scampers along behind him, follows him into the waiting car - and they drive straight away.

It looks like we've lost our chance for any more contact with his majesty, but then we learn that Luigj - a lumpen sidekick on the periphery of the inner circle - has lost his seat in one of the three limousines, and has been forced to hire a taxi. On condition that we pay the $100 return fare, we can ride in the royal motorcade. Horn blaring and black-eagle flag flapping in the wind, the taxi rattles through Tirana's grim, ramshackle suburbs and onto the country's only motorway.

As we speed through the countryside, public reaction to the spectacle is mixed. Farm labourers lean on their hoes and stare indifferently. Aged men give the hand-on-heart Zogist salute. In the towns, onlookers wave Leka's official portrait, an image that's also Sellotaped to our windscreen.

Peeved at having been relegated to a cab, Luigj is now attempting to muscle his way to the head of the convoy, urging the driver into a potentially lethal series of overtaking manoeuvres, regardless of the donkeys, goats and spectators that clutter the roadside. When a car proves uncooperative, Luigj leans out of the passenger window and aims his Baretta pistol at its occupants, bellowing abuse. Once we've nosed our way just behind Leka's transport, he's in better humour. He props his AK-47 against the dashboard and turns round, grinning like the boy who stole the sweetie jar. "Did you spend all night fucking, then?" he cackles, revealing a set of teeth that would have proved a professional challenge for Dr Duroliari.

Like a lot of things in Albania, Leka's visit to Vlora is chaotic. It's a blazingly bright day, and a 5,000-strong crowd has gathered. Albania's comic hero Norman Wisdom is probably the only other man capable of generating such interest, but this isn't just a fan club: these are cheated people who passionately want better government. Surrounded by his retinue, Leka makes for a massive monument commemorating Albania's 1912 declaration of independence. "Long live the man who'll save us from these swindlers!" someone yells. A toddler rides on his father's shoulders, carrying a crude embroidered picture of Zog.

Although they seem pleased to see him, Leka can't make the crowd listen. Mumbled platitudes about "brotherhood, peace and unity" go unheeded, and he only gets a strong response when he begins to refute Albania's need for foreign assistance, an obviously anti-Italian sentiment. Many bystanders are openly disrespectful: "Where's the money?" demands one man. "Has he brought any money with him?" He must have heard about Zog's chest of gold at the Ritz.

Leka, drowned out by the noise of the crowd, decides to cut his losses. As the Sandhurst prodigy struggles back to his limousine, things get ugly. Peals of gunfire ring out above our heads, and the air feels hot and dangerous. An enterprising gang descends on our taxi and yanks off the hubcaps. A nervous Luigj attempts to leave without us, and I have to dash along behind the car to get him to stop. Then, with a screech of brakes, we're off down the pitted backstreets of Vlora to rejoin the royal convoy. Luigj looks worried as the driver tells him that he saw a gang of rebels waving a stick of TNT at the motorcade. The royal visit to Vlora has lasted 20 minutes.

After half an hour, the cars draw up at a cafe, just past a stall selling beautifully polished hubcaps. The king sits in a white plastic chair, and we're invited to join him. Everyone loosens up - except the proprietor, who clearly wasn't expecting a royal visit. "That was the toughest place of the lot," concedes Mergin, a pock-faced retainer with a Mexican moustache, and he begins to tell me the story of his life: he was born in Hitchin in Hertfordshire to Albanian parents, served with the British army, and joined Leka's circle in Rhodesia in 1979. "I moved out of Hitchin when the blacks moved in," he laughs, slapping me on the back. I learn that Mergin is married to Leka's PA, that he feels nostalgic for the Daily Telegraph and that his name means "emigration" in Albanian.

Leka and Dr Duroliani are enjoying the sunshine. "That was ... interesting" is the king's verdict on events in Vlora. Is he going to get this riotous response everywhere he goes? "Yeah, my presence seems to ignite the spark," he smiles. "I just hope I'll work out as a stabilising factor." At this point I lose the logic of what Leka thinks he's doing in Albania. "Are people hailing you as a saviour?" I ask, implying criticism. But Leka thinks I've identified a positive trend. "Oh yes," he replies, in his bone-dry voice, pulling on a cigarette. "They're beginning to." It's been a difficult morning for everyone. The bodyguards begin to hand out cans of fizzy drink, and we toast the house of Zog with blood-warm Fanta.

KINGS WITHOUT A COUNTRY, PART 1

KING SIMEON OF THE BULGARIANS

King Simeon of the Bulgarians can't apologise enough: a secretary has taken the day off sick, and my appointment has been forgotten. I've only had to loiter in the study of his Madrid villa for a minute or so, but his majesty is as contrite as if some major diplomatic incident had been caused. The balding, gangly mon-arch comes running from another room, shakes my hand vigorously and ushers his butler to the kitchen for coffee and iced water.

We're in his study, a cluttered relicry of his homeland: the walls are lined with books on Bulgaria in the eight languages he speaks; a glass case contains portraits of his fellow Saxe-Coburg-Gothas, the dynasty that includes the British royals. The family resemblance is strong - indeed, he looks like a bearded, less geriatric version of the Duke of Kent. Coffee arrives. "Do you take it black, sir?" he asks, in a clipped, German accent, picking up the milk jug.

These are critical times for Bulgaria, and the king is monitoring events hawkishly: the roof of his villa prickles with radio antennae and satellite dishes. On 20 April, Bulgaria gave its mandate to the anti-socialist UDF coalition, many of whose MPs are in favour of constitutional monarchy. This gives the 60-year-old Simeon a healthy chance of regaining the throne from which he was ejected by a 1946 plebiscite conducted by Bulgaria's first Communist administration. And there are other signs that things are moving his way: a newspaper opinion poll has named him the most popular man in Bulgaria, and his son has been taken on as adviser to Petar Stoyanov, the divorce lawyer who became the right-of- centre president in January.

Unlike his schoolmate, Leka, Simeon's not going to disrupt a developing political process by tossing in the monarchist red herring. "We have other more urgent problems before going into metaphysical arguments like that." Problems like the collapse of the currency, organised crime, and "all kinds of hanky-panky business-wise". He explains his reasons for hesitancy: "I wasn't in a hurry to go to Bulgaria because I always like not to create useless confusion, and I respect other people's opinions too much to impose my own."

In 1943, Simeon was crowned at the age of five, the little figurehead of a Nazi puppet administration. "I was a tiny king, but still a king," he recalls. The day of his accession is still a vivid memory: "I was in a haystack with my sister, fooling around, and someone from the court came up, looking very solemn, and addressed me as `Your Majesty', not `Your Royal Highness'. My sister started to cry, she'd realised immediately what had happened."

His father, Boris III, died after returning from a meeting with Hitler, and the coincidence was viewed suspiciously. "There was no scientific autopsy done because my mother was a very devout Catholic," he explains. "Some people insinuated that she might have been trying to hide things, suggesting that my father could have been poisoned by Mussolini. Some people said he was brought back dead from Germany - which is rotten nonsense because I was there to meet him - and others said he was shot. Legends can become very peculiar."

A pickled heart is all that remains of Boris. It was rediscovered in 1996, rumoured to have been found in a gardener's hut at a former palace. "We are reasonably certain that it was a massive coronary, because his heart has an enormous clot." This uncertainty still troubles the king. "I would like to find out a definite answer for my own peace of mind."

When the Russians liberated - or invaded - Bulgaria in September 1944, his family's movements were restricted and 125 politicians, royal relations and military leaders were put to death. "Most were harmless elderly gentlemen," Simeon reflects, confessing that he feared execution himself. "The Russian revolution was much closer in everybody's mind, and World War Two had been frightful enough to suggest that more excesses might happen."

A referendum in 1946 found 94 per cent of Bulgarians in favour of abolishing the monarchy. Simeon disputes its legitimacy: "It was not only rigged but bogus," he insists. "We had Soviet troops in the country, and no referendum is internationally legal if there is an occupation." The family took refuge in Egypt with Simeon's grandfather, the exiled King Umberto II of Italy, until they were granted asylum by Spain in 1951. "My mother wanted to live in Europe and, in those days, Italy was not too keen on having me, and finally the Spanish ambassador said, `Have you considered Spain, sir?' " Perhaps because he found refuge in Franco's Fascist state, Simeon is keen to stress the randomness of this offer: "If the Luxembourg ambassador had asked us, maybe we would have gone there. I was a hot potato, to put it vulgarly."

But what does a king without a country actually do? Simeon offers advice as though it's a situation in which any unsuspecting person might find themself. "Keep your dignity, that's the most important thing. Don't become bitter, because a king in exile is a very pathetic and ridiculous figure." Chaplin's A King in New York taught him a sober lesson, and he used his business career to escape drowning in Martini and nostalgia: "I separated the crown from my daily work, and never went around in business as King Simeon. Some things you have to go out and do as Mr Saxe-Coburg."

In Madrid, Simeon used his international contacts to establish a successful consultancy, working mainly with Moroccan-based electronics firms. "But not military electronics," he asserts, a little nervily. He married into the Spanish aristocracy, and although he and his wife, Queen Margarita, gave their children Bulgarian names, they avoided weaning them on monarchist fantasies: "I brought up my children as God-fearing and law-abiding citizens, rather than fill their heads with stories about being princes."

In 1996, he went on a "fact-finding mission" to Bulgaria after a 50-year absence. Half a million people turned up to cheer him even as the incumbent government denounced it as "part of a massive campaign to revive Fascism". His majesty is indignant. "Monarcho-Fascism was the dirty word that was thrown on us. How can you put monarchy and Fascism together?" (He neglects the example of his great-grandfather Victor Emmanuel III's co-operation with Mussolini.) "Many people get excited when they hear the word `Fascism', so there is nothing easier than to use it against the most innocent people."

The kingship isn't a prerequisite for going back to Bulgaria. "Unless they find some very serious offence to keep me out I will return as a private citizen," he declares. "Especially as I'm at retiring age." Before he disappears I ask him what it is that drives him towards this goal. Is it duty? Patriotism? He grimaces. "Patriot-ism? I don't dare use the word. It's a love of what you stand for - or were meant to stand for. Duty, definitely. I think if I carry this title, it has to be done with dignity." In the hallway, the uniformed figure of Boris III is staring down sternly from a portrait on the panelled wall.

KINGS WITHOUT A COUNTRY, PART 2

CROWN PRINCE ALEXANDER KARADJORDJEVIC OF YUGOSLAVIA

Crown Prince Alexander Karadjordjevic of Yugoslavia has given me three videos about himself. One is an interview from CNN, the others cover his return to Belgrade in 1991. In A Crown Prince Among His People, pictures from Serbian TV show him weeping with emotion as crowds of thousands cheer his name and give him the three-fingered Chetnik salute.

A world away from Balkan turmoil, the area around London's Park Lane has always been important to the Karadjordjevic dynasty. When Alexander's grandfather was assassinated in Marseilles in 1934, Yugoslavia's Prince Pavel renounced both a dizzy social life and a flat on Mount Street in order to fulfil his duties as regent to Alexander's father, King Petar II. After the Nazis invaded his country, Claridges hotel accommodated King Petar's government-in-exile. It was also here that Petar lived with his wife, Princess Alexandra of the Hellenes, in exile in London after Greece was declared a republic in 1924. And, on 17 July 1945, King George IV declared their suite to be Yugoslav territory for a day, so that Alexander could be born in his own country, and have a legitimate claim on the throne: although the fragmentation of his homeland means that his ambitions are today limited to Serbia and Montenegro.

And now Alexander occupies modest offices behind an empty shop on Hyde Park Corner. Behind the unassuming front door is a room decorated with maps of the former Yugoslavia and innumerable framed magazines - Hello!- type journals with Alexander and his family beaming from their covers. Meeting the Crown Prince is a similarly glossy experience. He's a smooth- faced, rather chunky businessman with a laid-back, transatlantic manner. He looks as if he could schmooze the former Yugoslavia back to peace and prosperity. That, in fact, is his aim.

"My role is to bring democracy to my country, to put an end to these chameleons who are playing with people but are incapable of putting them first." Alexander's inspiration is King Juan Carlos, whose return to Spain after Franco's death eased the country into democracy. His enthusiasm for this work is evangelical: "I'll be very positive, get down to the job, make friends. We're so lucky here in the West - look at the debates on TV where everyone gets up at the end and shakes hands instead of shooting each other. My job is to provide a mediatory role over coffee, and a pat on the back. It would have been marvellous if the recent wars of succession could have been fought out in this way."

He takes this project seriously, and has given up lucrative business activities to devote himself to Yugoslav affairs and polish up his rusty Serbo-Croat. A stream of faxes and e-mail flows into his office, and next door, Crown Princess Katherine is arranging to send wheelchairs to Sarajevo and Belgrade. "Some for the Muslims and some for the Serbs. Everyone needs help".

Perhaps because of the monarchist sympathies of Serbian opposition leader Vuk Draskovic, the Belgrade regime is beginning to register Alexander's activities, and President Milosevic is attempting to discredit him through the state-controlled press. In Febru-ary, Draskovic and the other leaders of the Zajedno ("Together") coalition came to London for talks with Alexander: "I thought it would be very nice if we met in Claridges," he explains. "It was rather symbolic, and they enjoyed that very much because they knew the history. The state media said we met for a few minutes in a pub. Now I have nothing against pubs, but we met for over two hours." The morning of my appointment with Alexander, a letter bearing his forged signature appeared in a Serbian newspaper. "They must be getting access to my correspondence, or they're taking excerpts from my statements and twisting them. This one mentions my uncle, but it doesn't use the correct form of address, so they made a mistake there."

He's clearly pleased by the propagandists' attentions, confident that people will be able to see through them. "It's fascinating that this is happening - they must be very desperate to go to such cheap lengths."

Milosevic has tried to divide monarchist sympathies by persuading Alexander's 70-year-old uncle Tomislav out of exile in Sussex and back to Belgrade. "It's a sad story. I think he was taken in, and believed he could be something he couldn't be," his nephew reflects. "It happens to the best of people. I've always considered him my uncle and I love him very much. I've spoken to him on numerous occasions, but I try to avoid any public situations because this is exactly what the regime wants. These are the Balkans - political games are everywhere."

For Alexander, a re-established monarchy would bring good constitutional practice to Yugoslavia, and resuscitate democratic pro-cesses begun by his family during the inter-war years but frozen by Tito. This is a rosy reading of Karadjordjevic history. In 1929, his grandfather abolished the Yugoslav parliament, and in 1941, his uncle Pavel made an ill-fated Chamberlain-like deal with Hilter. Although he's keen to see these events sympathetically, Alexander's distaste for Tito is undiluted. "His was the new imperial party, and he was an emperor who lived better than any European king. He had more suits than all the presidents of Europe put together. And more shoes - as if he was a centipede. Imelda Marcos was nothing compared to him."

He bears no malice towards the British government for allowing the Communists to unseat his family. "It's understandable that they really couldn't care less who was in power after the war. We would have appreciated it if the backing had been given to the loyalist side, but that's another story. I'm sure that it'll come out one day that - unwittingly to Churchill - Communism penetrated right into the halls of power of the British government."

And as if to prove he can talk tough as well as offer conciliatory words, Alexander launches into a bit of hard-nosed football-coach team-talk: "My version of monarchy is very different to the British tabloid version. I have a job to do, which is called bringing democracy. I don't have any scandals or any of that crap. Alright? None of this garbage about chasing girlfriends and queers." It's a coffee-table-bashing mantra: "Democracy. People, people, people. Once we get that, then you come and buy a few newspapers and find some scandal." He expects Milosevic to fall within the year, but the president has a limpet's tenacity when it comes to sticking to power, and he's currently benefiting from disarray in opposition ranks. For the moment, Alexander's cafetiere and packet of biscuits will have to wait.

King Simeon of the Bulgarians with his wife, Queen

Margarita (right), Queen Mother Ionna and family

KING LEKA from page 4

Leka photographed on his wedding day in 1975 with his new Queen, Australian designer Susan Cullen-Ward

Crown Prince Alexander poses in his Park Lane office

Leka (above, with megaphone) addresses a crowd of 5,000 people at a rally in the southern city of Vlora. To his left is Dr Duroliari, the leader of Albania's royalist Legalite Party. Below: waving goodbye as things turn ugly

Outside Leka's hired villa in south Tirana, royalist bodyguards demonstrate the hand-on-heart Zogist salute

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