By Erika B. Schlager
Counsel for International Law
On September 10, 2003, the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission) held a briefing to assess the status of governmental efforts to provide restitution of, or compensation for, property wrongfully seized in Europe under communist and Nazi rule. Ambassador Randolph M. Bell, Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, provided an update on developments since his participation in the Commission's July 2002 hearing on this subject.
Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) chaired the September 10 briefing, noting that "this issue will continue to be on our agenda until we accomplish the objectives of transparent laws in all of the states [and] fair and just compensation for the properties that were unlawfully taken during the Nazi and communist years." The Helsinki Commission has previously held three hearings specifically on these issues.
In a related development, on October 13, Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), Mr. Cardin, Commissioner Rep. Joseph R. Pitts (R-PA), and Representative Jo Ann Davis (R-VA) met with Polish officials in Warsaw to raise directly their concerns regarding Poland's failure to adopt any private property restitution or compensation law at all. Members met with Piotr Ogrodzinski, Director of the Americas Department at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Andrzej Szarawarski, Secretary of State at the Ministry of the Treasury, and Under-Secretary of State Barbara Misterska-Dragan.
The Members reminded their interlocutors that President Kwasniewski and Foreign Minister Cimoszewicz gave their personal assurances to congressional leaders (including Chairman Smith) in a meeting with House Speaker Dennis Hastert in July 2002 that a private property law would be ready by the beginning of 2003. Notwithstanding this pledge, the Government of Poland has failed to submit such a law to parliament. In Warsaw, Members voiced acute frustration at continuing delays and urged the Polish Government to move quickly on this time-sensitive issue.
Briefing Reviews Mixed Record
In his introductory remarks, Ambassador Bell stressed that a number of measures must be in place for effective restitution: open access to archival records, uniform enforcement of laws, clear procedures, and provisions for current occupants of property subject to restitution. Uniform, fair, and complete restitution is necessary to establish the rule of law and to safeguard rights and freedoms in many countries, he noted. Ambassador Bell also suggested that restitution can facilitate reform and thereby help countries gain entry into multilateral institutions.
Most OSCE countries working toward restitution are making slow but steady progress on the return of communal property, such as educational, church, and hospital buildings. According to Bell, some countries have nearly completed the return of such property, including Slovakia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria.
In other instances, returning property to its owners, or reimbursing them, is fraught with political obstacles. "While leaders may achieve our praise for facing these issues, they often gain little or nothing in the way of parliamentary support at home for doing so," Bell said. Speaking from the audience, one observer suggested that restitution often stalls when it becomes a political issue that leaders can manipulate and that economic challenges in restitution create further challenges. He added that politicians should speak more frequently and positively about their experiences restoring property to the rightful owners. "This is a part of the process of becoming an open democratic society, part of the family of Western nations," he said.
Progress has been frustratingly slow, acknowledged Commissioner Cardin. The Commission has frequently encountered barriers to restitution, such as residency or citizenship requirements and management of funds under different domestic laws. "We have found that we have gotten commitments from the leaders of countries, only to find that those commitments are not really carried out," Cardin said.
Another audience member expressed concern that the Slovenian Government has discriminated against American property owners, arguing that as foreigners, they were less likely to have property returned in Slovenia. Ambassador Bell noted that even when a court does rule in favor of a claimant, the Slovenian Government has the ability to appeal for a reversal. He said the State Department would continue to press for fair property returns in Slovenia.
A few countries came in for particular criticism during the briefing. "I am following the advice of our chairman, Chairman Smith, when he says that we have to start naming countries and naming practices, because we cannot let this continue," Mr. Cardin said. "The current situation is not acceptable in Poland or in Romania or in the Czech Republic."
Poland has failed to adopt any law providing for private property restitution or compensation. In meetings with congressional leaders last July, visiting President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz gave assurances that a draft private property law would be ready by early 2003. The government has yet to submit a draft to the parliament.
Ambassador Bell urged Poland to make good on its promises to return private property to its rightful owners. "To delay action will only make it more difficult to address this issue down the road," he said.
Property restitution in Romania since the fall of communism has been slow and ineffective. The laws enacted by the government to address the problem lack transparency, are complex, and have not been properly implemented.
The law governing the restitution of private property was enacted in February 2001 and provided a one-year deadline for filing claims. Documentary proof of those claims was required to be submitted by August 2002. This deadline was revised several times and finally set for May 14, 2003, due to the fact that claimants were experiencing great difficulty in obtaining from state archives the necessary documents to support their claims. More than two and a half years after enactment of the restitution law, the government finally promulgated regulations governing the documentation necessary to support property claims--on May 14, 2003, the same day as the deadline for filing those claims. Of 210,000 claims registered, only 6,300 properties have been returned.
Commissioner Cardin described one Romanian case that suggests the kinds of struggles involved with restitution. The claimant in that case had clear title to the property and had won multiple cases in court--but was still unable to regain the property because the government would not relinquish it. Ultimately, the property was returned because of the international publicity it generated.
The Czech Republic's restitution laws limit redress for confiscated properties to people who are currently citizens of the Czech Republic. Prior to 1999, Czech law prohibited naturalized U.S. citizens from having dual Czech and American citizenship. In order to participate in the property restitution program, therefore, Czech-Americans had to renounce their U.S. citizenship and few, if any, Czech-Americans exercised this option. In other words, at the same time the Czech Republic was being welcomed into NATO, Czech Americans were uniquely excluded by virtue of their U.S. citizenship from the possibility of regaining properties stolen from them by Nazi or communist regimes. (Czechoslovak citizens who sought refuge in other countries--e.g., Canada, France, or Australia--were not automatically stripped of their Czechoslovak citizenship and were therefore eligible to make restitution claims.) Some Czech parliamentarians have sponsored legislation to remedy this injustice, but the Czech Government has consistently opposed it.
Since the fall of the Milosevic regime, civil society has sought to advance a number of initiatives to address past wrongs, including property reform. While privatization is an important component of economic reform, there is concern that insufficient consideration is given to individuals seeking restitution of property they or their families owned prior to World War II.
One observer from the audience noted that the International Crisis Group and others have reported that corruption may make the privatization effort in Serbia all the more difficult for those with property claims. Addressing this issue, Ambassador Bell asserted that corruption inevitably slows down privatization. In addition, he noted that, although the Serbia-Montenegro Government has said it will restitute property seized during communist rule, no law has yet been put in place to do so. "There is a gap between what the new democratic Government of Serbia said when it took office, and what has happened," he said. There are people in the government of Serbia and Montenegro who are serious about reform, but it is a difficult struggle, he added.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Lauren Smith contributed to this article.