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Albania: Exiled King Returns To Uncertain Future, Possible Weapons Charges

The son of the late King Zog of Albania returned to his homeland on 28 July, 63 years after the family fled in exile. He was greeted in Tirana by his supporters, but also by police, who confiscated a large number of weapons in Leka Zog's possession. Leka Zog's political future remains uncertain. He has said he will respond to the people's will, but a 1997 referendum, which Leka Zog does not recognize, voted down the monarchy in Albania.

Tirana, 2 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Leka Zog, the heir to the Albanian throne, fled Tirana due to the Italian invasion with his family two days after his birth on 5 April 1939. His father, the late King Zog, was later deposed by the Communists in 1946 and died in 1961.

The family has lived most recently in South Africa, after a long exile spent in France, Spain, and Egypt. Leka Zog was crowned king by his supporters in Paris in 1961 after his father's death.

In a special declaration, all Albanian parliamentary groups called Leka Zog's return a historic moment. "We hail the return at home of the Albanian royal family, considering it the end of an injustice caused by the fascist and communist dictatorships," said the statement.

Both main political forces in Albania are in favor of maintaining the country's status as a republic, however. Royalists lost a referendum in 1997, when only 36 percent of Albanians voted for the monarchy.

That referendum marked Leka Zog's last visit to Albania, and he accused the Electoral Commission of rigging the referendum. He was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison for organizing an illegal demonstration, during which two people died. Albania's parliament granted him an amnesty a few weeks ago, allowing his return.

Uncertain about the ways of restoring his throne, Leka Zog said in Tirana that his political interests are above those of the country's political parties.

"I will answer the people's will. If the people want to have again a referendum, I am ready. But this time, I hope it will not be manipulated, as happened in 1997. My return -- it's self-evident -- has a political aspiration, but I want you to understand that I do not want to interfere with partisan politics. I am interested in the people, and all I care about are their needs."

Leka Zog remains a supporter of the union of ethnic Albanian territories. He stresses the need for Albania to overcome this difficult period, when political instability and poverty have taken control of its future.

"As you know, in 1997 I, too, declared unity, fraternity, and peace [for Albanians]. The unity is required to revive Albania. Neither I nor any person in the world can resuscitate a nation all alone. At this moment, I speak for the union of all Albanians, in order to revive Albania, for Kosovo is getting back to life. We need to restore life in Albania. Besides, I have not forgotten our brothers and sisters living in Kosovo, Macedonia, and Cameria (northern Greece). I surely have not forgotten them."

Leka Zog said his family will obey all republican laws, although the family still has to apply for citizenship and Albanian travel passports. The family has rented a beautiful residence in the center of Tirana. A large number of properties throughout the country have to be reconfirmed as royal property.

Ekrem Spahia, chairman of the biggest faction of three noninfluential royalist parties in Albania, considers this moment a decisive one for Albania's national reconciliation process.

"The return of the royal family after 63 years of exile means the filling of a historic vacuum in Albania and surely, according to the request of the Albanians, of the state institutions, of the political parties in cooperation with the international factor, as King Leka I has stressed. He is ready to offer his contribution as a citizen, as a politician in accord with the interests of the Albanian nation."

The return of the royal family follows a historic turnaround in political relations in Albania. Ruling and opposition factions in parliament recently elected a new president, Alfred Moisiu, replacing unpopular incumbent Rexhep Meidani. The compromise over Moisiu was hailed as spelling the end of 12 years of political deadlock in the country.

This fresh political climate has not stopped the country's media from writing negatively about the royal family, especially after police confiscated automatic weapons and grenades from Leka Zog as he arrived at Tirana's Rinas airport. He said yesterday he hopes the government will let him keep his weapons, which he said are from his private collection. He said he had a license to export them from South Africa.

Albanian police say they were not informed about the arms and that an inquiry would be launched.

One Albanian newspaper wrote that the "king has come closer to his people, but the monarchy is still too far from them."

But one 30-year-old monarchist, who traveled more than 300 kilometers from a village in northeastern Albania to greet the king on his return home, says his reasons for supporting the monarchy are not ideological.

"The only reason to greet so enthusiastically the return of the king is not the history [of oppression] during the [Enver] Hoxha dictatorship, but our fathers say there was a state and he (King Zog I) founded it. During his reign, the economy was prosperous, and for these reasons, we ask him to get to the king's throne and lead the Albanian people, in order that we move forward."