Son of Zog makes grab for limelight

Andrew Gumbel reports on a royal threat to orderly transition of power in Albania
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As the second round of Albania's general election passed off relatively smoothly yesterday and the victorious Socialist Party readied itself for office, just one major obstacle remained in the way of a smooth transition of power: the towering figure of the man who would be king, Leka Zogu.

The self-proclaimed heir to Albania's throne, a commodity broker from South Africa who stands 6ft 10in tall, started out as an eccentric footnote to the country's electoral process, but has ended up grabbing the limelight by means both fair and foul. His royalist party has wreaked havoc by claiming to have been cheated of victory in last Sunday's referendum on the reintroduction of the monarchy. His highly visible thugs have provoked bloodshed and a lurking sense of unease on the streets of Tirana.

The referendum was a quirky addition to the electoral pot cooked up by Albania's beleaguered president Sali Berisha. It is now clear, however, that Mr Berisha has used the would-be king to stir up trouble in the hour of his own defeat.

Mr Berisha's Democratic Party, and particularly the newspapers it controls, have given full credence to Leka's claims that he lost the referendum because of Socialist-inspired vote-rigging (the final result was 2-1 in favour of a republic). Some of the president's own bodyguards have been seen waving guns and shouting at Leka's public appearances.

When the monarchists opened fire on police during a bloody demonstration outside the central electoral commission on Thursday, a man killed in the ensuing fracas turned out to be a member of the Democratic Party. When the man was buried on Saturday, a senior Democratic Party figure, Genc Pollo, accompanied Leka at the funeral.

In theory, Leka and his family have no right to enter Albanian territory except by special invitation. In theory, too, the Democratic Party has no sympathy with their cause; indeed, Mr Berisha thwarted their plans for a visit back in 1993. But when Leka failed to leave the country when his 24-hour visa expired back in April, there was not so much as a squeak in complaint. The interior ministry has the power to expel him at any time, but the ministry is under the control of the Democratic Party.

Leka, whose father King Zog bled the country dry during his 11-year rule in the 1920s and 1930s, is now based at a leafy villa in one of Tirana's more pleasant districts and goes everywhere in the company of rowdy, heavily- armed security guards. His dress has included a blue safari suit and, during Thursday's demonstration, army battle fatigues. He has refused to speak English in the presence of foreign journalists, even though it is his best language, and has responded with fury whenever reference is made to alleged arms-trafficking activities, for which he was forced to leave Spain in the late 1970s.

If he scored as well as he did in the referendum, it was as a symbolic counterweight to the two main parties. However, most Albanians appear unimpressed by Leka himself and his programme to resuscitate his father's 1928 constitution.

Fatos Nano, the Socialist leader now expected to become prime minister, said Leka was welcome in Albania as long as he left the monarchy at the airport. But as the would-be king's violent rhetoric and behaviour continue, Mr Nano may have to think again.