Leka Zogu: Controversial 'king of the Albanians' who spent most of his life in exile

 

Leka of Albania was one of the most colourful and controversial characters on the 20th century Balkan scene, and one of the last links with the pre-Second World War Zogist monarchy. He was born in 1939 into a world of deep political crisis, with the government of his father, King Zog, Albania's first king, about to be snuffed out by Mussolini's forces. When Leka was one day old, his father held a great military parade in the capital, Tirana, a great provocation to the Duce in Rome.

Plans were laid for the immediate exile of Leka and his mother, Queen Geraldine. Zog's plan to retire to the mountains to head an anti-Fascist resistance was stymied by the treachery of the Yugoslavs, and he, too, fled into exile – in such confusion that the family Fabergé eggs and the queen's fortune were left behind – the family and a small entourage settling in northern Greece.

Leka was not to return to Albania for over 50 years, and the greater part of his life was spent in peripatetic exile, dominated by his mother, and he did not marry until 1975. The forceful Geraldine had numerous contacts among the European aristocracies, and most of the Second World War was spent in London, where they lived in the Ritz hotel for a time, and then near Ascot.

Zog's hope that he would be able to secure British support for his return to the throne when the war ended was reinforced by his close relationship with key members of the Special Operations Executive, like Julian Amery, who were sent from SOE HQ in Cairo to assist the pro-royalist resistance to the Axis. The Foreign Office, though, was never inclined to forgive Zog for his pro-Italian leanings in the 1930s and gave enough support to pro-Communist groups under the control of Enver Hoxha's Partisans to enable them to seize power before the war ended elsewhere in Europe. Amery remained a lifelong friend.

The family then moved to Egypt, where the Farouk monarchy was of Albanian descent, and the 10-year-old Leka was enrolled at Victoria College. He was a quiet, studious boy, already set apart from his contemporaries by his towering height – by adulthood he stood nearly 7ft tall. He survived life-threatening bouts of pneumonia and bronchitis, and in 1952 they left Egypt, as the Nasserite revolution approached.

In April 1961, while they were living in Paris, Zog died and Leka wassuddenly thrust into the limelight.He was consecrated King of the Albanians in the Hotel Bristol in Paris, in contrast to his father, who had been only King of Albania, and throughout his life he was a firm supporter of the national cause in Kosovo, the Cameria region of north-west Greece and western Macedonia.

In his 20s Leka was a great admirer of General Franco's Spain, and duly moved there in the mid-Sixties. Leka had always been fascinated by weapons, and was immensely proud of the fact that, when once an assassination attempt was made on his father, Zog was the only monarch in history known to have returned fire.

Leka travelled with a large personal arsenal, something that sometimes brought him into conflict with the authorities in transit countries. He acquired a raffish reputation as an arms dealer in the West, and some countries barred his entry. Politically, his struggle was always to establish his legitimacy, in the face of the problem of the collaboration of his father with Italy in the 1930s, and the underlying fact that Zog, only a tribal chieftain in his youth, had no long or stable royal lineage. But in romantic, if often uncertain, exile he had at least had a clear role to play.

The end of Communism in 1990-91 complicated his life considerably. He wished to return to Albania but for a long time was unable to do so, as he would not accept that he was not still the legitimate king, and had that title on his passport. He was arrested at Tirana airport on one occasion and deported in 1995, allegedly to Brazil. His followers in Albania were split into two groups: those who wanted a constitutional monarchy; and those who wished to see him return to power under the semi-dictatorial 1929 constitution of his father Zog.

These tensions came to a height in 1997, when Leka was persuaded to return to Tirana to make a bid for power. He did so, and a referendum on the monarchy was only narrowly defeated, Leka claimed by the electoral manipulation of Daan Everts, the head of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Leka's paramilitary units led an attack on the government buildings, and he only narrowly escaped arrest. He returned to exile in South Africa; the royalist cause seemed irrevocably lost, and it appeared unlikely that he would ever see his homeland again.

Yet, in one of the dramatic reversals of fortune that dominated his life, he was rescued from political oblivion by the Kosovo crisis. He had always campaigned actively and without thought of personal gain on the Kosovo Albanians' behalf, and had built up much goodwill in that community in their fight against Serbian occupation. He and his followers played a positive role in the wartime period, and millions of dollars were raised by royalist exiles in the US, particularly in Detroit, for humanitarian relief and for munitions for the Kosovo Liberation Army.

As the political atmosphere eased in Tirana, Leka returned to live in a grand house owned by an Albanian-American multi-millionaire and recently vacated by the Greek ambassador, a particularly satisfying irony as Leka had always regarded Greek expansionism as one of the central causes of instability in the region. The fact that he had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and his abstention from controversial political activity no doubt eased his passage home.

He continued to fight for Kosovo until his death, and in spring 2003 addressed a highly emotional gathering tocommemorate the foundation of the Prizren League at which he endorsed the principle of reunification of the Albanians. During his final years Leka stoutly resisted his illness but retired from public life, spending most of his time in Albania and taking great pride in his son's achievements as an officer cadet at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, in Britain.

James Pettifer

Data Leka Zogu: born Tirana, Albania 5 April 1939; consecrated 1961 King of the Albanians; married 1975 Susan Cullen-Ward (died 2004; one son); died Tirana 30 November 2011.

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