Following the birth of Crown Prince Leka and Crown Princess Elia’s first child, Royal Central spoke to the Crown Prince about his daughter, his upbringing and his beloved Albania:
Royal Central: Your Royal Highness, thank you for accepting to speak with us and congratulations on the birth of your first child. In light of the fact that the baby was born on the same day, October 22, as your grandmother, Queen Geraldine, who died in 2002, did you choose the name Geraldine for the little princess before her birth or did you choose this name only after you realised the uncanny coincidence?
Crown Prince Leka: Thank you for the congratulations, it is a joyous time for our family as we celebrate the birth of our daughter, Princess Geraldine. The name Geraldine was always on the top of our list; however, a few days before the eventual birth of our daughter, we started to waver in the decision. After we noticed the coinciding dates, any hesitation from our side quelled. The response from family and friends has been overwhelmingly positive.
RC: When your grandmother died, you were 20-years-old. Were you close to her? Can you share with us a story, anecdote or memory that is emblematic for her personality?
L: My grandmother was a remarkable lady, a devout Catholic and of pure heart. I was always very close to Queen Geraldine and feel blessed that she invested a lot of her time and energy during my youth. She used to teach me the refinements of royal protocol whilst giving me a firsthand impression of Albania, the history and culture from her own experiences, and those of my grandfather, King Zog.
RC: Your Royal Highness, to help our readers to get to know you better, could you take us to all the places you’ve lived in and the specific moments of your life when that happened? I know that you were born and grew up in South Africa (Johannesburg) but that you also studied in Great Britain and Italy.
L: I was born in South Africa, however at the time of my birth, the South African government declared the maternity ward temporarily Albanian territory for 24 hours so to ensure that I was born on “Albanian soil”. I eventually returned to Albania in 2002 with my parents and grandmother, when nine parliamentary group leaders signed a proclamation which was followed by an official invitation signed by a bipartisan group of 74 parliamentarians.
In 2004, I spent some time preparing myself at the Albanian Military Academy Skanderbeg, before I was sent by the Albanian Ministry of Defence as the first officer cadet from Albania to the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, other than my own father who attended the Academy in the 1950s.
My time at Sandhurst was an experience which has influenced my mindset and character profoundly. The military training gave me hands-on experience with the elite of the British Army whilst the academy’s academic focus was on leadership abilities whilst pushing one’s physical and mental limits. My time in Italy was far less exciting but allowed me to enjoy my freedom as a student as I took Italian language courses at the Foreign University Language in Perugia. I soon returned to Albania, where I continued my studies in international relations and diplomacy and entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a cabinet advisor to the Minister.
RC: How old were you when you moved to Albania, and how hard was it to adapt to a new life?
L: I was 19-years-old when I first arrived in Albania. From the first day in Tirana, I was given a very strict schedule which started at 5 am every morning, my daily routine included extensive Albanian language training and literature, as my language abilities at the beginning were far from perfect. I had my own office and staff, and my father ensured that I would have supervised responsibility, a huge contrast from being a quiet young man living an African life. This time bowed me well, giving me the chance to cultivate the tools which I now have as head of the family.
RC: Could you describe your parents in a few words?
L: My father was a very dedicated man, a soldier by heart who had spent his entire life in the midst of the Cold War. The friends and Albanian supporters that I now have are much due to his legacy and his tireless fight for Albania’s freedom from communist tyranny. My mother was loving and caring, a beacon of joy, an artist. I was very fortunate to have been brought up by loving parents. Both my parents showed great fortitude during their very difficult lives.
RC: Your Royal Highness, did your father educate you as a royal with the expectation that you should be prepared to be King one day or were you raised like a normal child?
L: I was brought up in two different worlds, as a normal teenager going to school and preparing for exams, and as a Crown Prince, where my father taught me to be a servant to my people and maintain the highest ethos of integrity and honour, as to Albanian traditions.
RC: Having lived in communist Romania, I know that propaganda against the formal royal houses was extremely toxic and very effective. For instance, the Romanian communists claimed that King Michael left the country with wagons full of gold—claims that were egregious lies, yet even today, many people still believe them. Are there certain beliefs about your family embraced by the Albanian public that are untrue and the result of propaganda?
L: Indeed, 50 years of communism has undoubtedly had an impact on how people perceive the monarchy. The Albanian government has accepted that the school textbooks have to be revised… this is still an ongoing issue being debated and needs improvement. The communist dictatorship invested heavily in their propaganda, and anyone who was a royalist sympathiser or supporter were persecuted. Concentration and labour camps dotted the Albanian landscape. We had over 53,000 victims. If you had a single photo of King Zog, it would have meant 15 years of internment for you and your family. I am an avid supporter of the different groups like www.kujto.al which are doing an incredible job shedding some light and transparency about the horrific realities of the crimes of communism, whilst paying homage to the victims and their families.
In regards to the Royal Family, I am doing my best trying to change the communist narrative by providing documented archival information which allows people to have access to the truth. The communist secret files are now accessible, so we are teaming up with international and local experts to study the available information. Several books have now been published which outline the history of the family and reintroduce the monarchy to the new generation. The monarchy, for so many years, remained an inspiration of hope!
RC: Speaking of Romania, I noticed that you share the same birthday with the Head of the Romanian Royal Family, Her Majesty Margareta, Custodian of the Crown: 26 March. What is your relationship with the Romanian Royal Family and with the other European royal families and royal families around the world?
L: Yes! I do share the same birth date with Her Majesty Queen Margareta. The Romanian Royal Family is doing a fantastic job in Romania as they are redefining the role of a modern monarchy in a republic. In this sense, we have many similarities between Albania and Romania. I am massively appreciative to follow and learn from both HM Queen Margareta and Prince Radu from their hands-on experiences and always cherish our times together.
RC: Also, speaking of Her Majesty Margareta, I realise that you are both in the same position, as is Crown Prince Alexander of Serbia: you are titular monarchs, although you live in republics in a sort of alternative universe in which the republic tolerates the royal house as an institution that is helpful for the country and which has the respect of the society at large. What are the similarities and differences between your position and the positions of the other two royals I mentioned?
L: In 2003, the Albanian parliament passed a law which gave a special status to the Royal Family, and since then, it has been our task to ensure that we are serving the nation. In a republic, it is essential that we are present and adding stability, being a trusted symbol of unity, in the fray of the current political polarized diversity which has now become Albanian politics. We are also active through the Queen Geraldine Foundation, which allows us to have hands-on initiatives.
I have also accompanied the Albanian President on State visits; last year, for example, we visited the Principality of Monaco with President, H.E Ilir Meta. I also remain active in the foreign diplomatic core represented in Tirana. We have cultivated trust and continue to build bridges as we strive to define our role as part of the Albanian society. But in a critical view, I believe that there are still opportunities to do more. I would want to help promote Albania abroad and change the misconceptions about Albania’s image, which don’t reflect the reality of the country today.
RC: I know that there is a Royal Palace in Tirana, in which your father was born and which was nationalised by the communists. Where do you and your family live? Are you allowed to use the Palace for special events?
L: The Royal Palace, known as the Palace of Brigades, is currently a state protocol building that is currently not in the ownership of the family. The family is allowed to organise different events at the Palace. Notably, on 17th November 2012, the Albanian state held an official ceremony for the reburial of His Majesty King Zog at the Royal Palace. This was done as part of the commemoration of Albania’s independence centennial. In 2016, my wedding ceremony and official dinner were both held within the state halls of the Palace. I remain extremely grateful to the Albanian State for these two very auspicious occasions.
We currently reside in the centre of Tirana at the Royal Residence, which was returned to the family by the State Lands Commission in 2005. The architecture is late 1920s rationalism style, the compound is hidden behind the Albanian National Gallery and beside the Albanian Catholic Cathedral in a green lush oasis rare in metropolitan Tirana.Embed from Getty Images
RC: We live in a deeply divided world. Racial and religious tensions are very high, in particular between the Western and the Arab worlds. In this respect, Albania is in a special situation in Europe because a large part of its population is Muslim, or rather, many people live in households that are both Muslim and Catholic.
Your full name is Leka Anwar Zog Reza Baudouin Msiziwe Zogu. You were named in honour of the Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat; your grandfather, King Zog I; Shah Mohammed Reza of Iran; and Baudouin, King of the Belgians. Msiziwe is an honorific in Zulu. Your name alone and in itself is a mixture of several religions and traditions: Islamic, Catholic, and Zulu. Your identity is as global as one can imagine, spanning almost all continents: your mother was Australian, you, clearly, have Islamic background; you grew up in an African country and now are Crown Prince in a European country.
At your wedding with Elia Zaharia, five faiths were represented by their respective leaders: Sunni Islam, Bektashi, and the Christian traditions of Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. What religion did your parents practice, what is your religion, and what religion do you intend to raise your daughter in? How does your life experience inform your attitude about racial and religious conflicts? Today in the US, where I live, people are divided into “white,” “brown” and “black.” Many white-looking people who have African or Asian background identify as “people of colour.” You look white, but how do you identify yourself?
L: Albania is on the forefront of being a promoter of religious harmony. It is by no accident that His Holiness Pope Francis first trip abroad was to Albania for this reason. This diversity is also shown within my own family, my grandfather’s mother, Queen Mother Sadije Toptani, was a Bektashi Muslim, my grandmother a Catholic, my mother Anglican, my father a Sunni Muslim and my wife is an Albanian Orthodox Christian.
As Crown Prince, I am allowed to have my own private beliefs and religion, but I must also be the protector of all the official religions of the State. Our daughter will be brought up with a solid and grounded knowledge of all the religions.
Xenophobia in South-East Europe remains a problem; too often Albanians living in neighbouring countries suffer institutional racism. So I find that Albanians are far more tolerant of ethnic diversity than most countries because of the hardships that they have faced.
I myself lived in South Africa during the transition period from Apartheid to the freedoms of democracy; I remember all too well the difficulties which the South Africans faced and the strength which was shown by Nelson Mandela in bringing together a divided country. A true role model! I identify myself as a proud Albanian in the sentiments of the Albanian poet, “Vaso Pasha”!