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Helsinki Commission on Property Restitution Issues
Members Raise Concerns with Polish Officials in Warsaw
Tuesday, November 05, 2002

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

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.

Romania

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.

Czech Republic

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.

Serbia

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.

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In a poignant end to the Standing Committee’s second session, the Ukrainian Head of Delegation, Mykyta Poturaiev, reported on violence in his neighborhood of Kyiv and bid farewell as he sought to return to his family in Ukraine. The 2022 Polish Chair-in-Office of the OSCE for 2022 outlined Poland’s priorities in an utterly transformed era in European security. During the general debate, nominally on the topic of “security guarantees and the indivisibility of security in Europe,” delegations resumed their near-universal condemnation of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Rep. Hudson opened the meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Security by denouncing the invasion of one participating State by another, in total opposition of Helsinki principles. He also underlined the committee’s particular relevance in the context of the security crisis precipitated by Russia, a view reinforced by a panel of senior OSCE officials present as guest speakers.  Finally, Rep. Hudson moderated a debate on “heightened tensions in the OSCE area and the need for inter-parliamentary dialogue.” The debate focused heavily on the attack on Ukraine, with Sen.Wicker remotely joining those in Vienna condemning Russia’s outrageous behavior, and Rep. Jackson Lee forcefully urging members to recall the role of the Belarusian government in the events leading to the invasion. In the economic and environmental affairs committee, Rep. Smith spoke alongside OSCE official Valiant Richey about their efforts as special representatives on human trafficking issues of the Parliamentary Assembly and the OSCE, respectively. They specifically discussed supply chains as they relate to human trafficking matters. Representative Wilson spoke for the United States in the subsequent debate. In the committee dealing with democracy and human rights, Rep. Wilson condemned Russian human-rights violations in occupied Ukraine and in Russia itself, as well as ongoing repression in Belarus. Rep. Aderholt defended free media in his statement to the committee following presentations by recent Nobel laureate and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitriy Muratov and OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro. On the margins of the Winter Meeting, the U.S. delegation gathered key parliamentarians from a range of participating States over dinner, fostering an opportunity for frank and candid exchanges of views on important topics confronting the OSCE. The event emphasized the depth of the U.S. commitment to European security, going beyond diplomatic representatives to include elected Members of Congress. The delegation also was briefed by diplomats representing the United States in the OSCE, including Ambassador Michael Carpenter, and held bilateral meetings with the heads of the Azerbaijani and Mongolian OSCE PA Delegations. Visiting Lithuania The delegation’s presence in Europe also afforded an opportunity to visit Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, the delegation met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. Officials emphasized to the delegation the game-changing nature of recent developments, especially the total capitulation of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus to Moscow. These actions resulted in a dramatically more challenging situation on Lithuania’s border, leaving the country essentially no warning should Putin choose to act against the Baltic states.  The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area, a Lithuanian initiative which provides facilities for U.S. and Allied military activities in the region. Members also met with Belarusians and Russians who had fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Helsinki Commission Mourns Death of Ukrainian OSCE Mission Member During Russian Attack on Kharkiv

    WASHINGTON—Following the death of a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine during a Russian attack, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), and Ranking Members Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “We are saddened and angered by the tragic death of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian member of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) in Ukraine, during shelling in Kharkiv on March 1. We offer our deepest condolences to her family and friends. “Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s ruthless attack against the people of Ukraine is targeting men, women, and children; destroying homes, businesses, and cultural treasures; and forcing millions to flee for their lives. Putin’s unprovoked war is shredding the European security architecture that brought peace after the Second World War. Individuals like Maryna Fenina remind us of the terrible human toll of war. “Russia must cease its brutal and criminal invasion and withdraw its forces from the sovereign territory of Ukraine.” Maryna Fenina was the second OSCE SMM member to die as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Joseph Stone, a U.S. paramedic serving with the SMM, was killed In April 2017 when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine. The SMM was established in 2014 to monitor implementation of the Minsk agreements, which were designed to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. It is an unarmed, civilian mission that has served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. On February 25, the SMM decided to withdraw its international mission members from Ukraine. Ukrainian national mission members remain in the country. 

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest February 2022

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Leads Bipartisan Congressional Delegation to Defend Democracy and Ukrainian Sovereignty at OSCE PA Winter Meeting

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) last week led a bipartisan Congressional delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) in Vienna, Austria, which focused almost exclusively on responding to the full-scale Russian assault on Ukraine.  A sizable and active U.S. presence at the hybrid event helped generate nearly united condemnation of the Kremlin attack and provided assurance of the U.S. commitment to European security during a time of great uncertainty. “Our bipartisan delegation actively and adamantly defended Ukraine’s rights as a sovereign nation in the face of unchecked Russian aggression,” said Co-Chairman Cohen. “The European security architecture that has supported peace and prosperity on the continent and around the world for decades must not be allowed to crumble at the whim of a dictator with grandiose aspirations of returning to some imagined past glory. It is long past time that democratic nations—including all other OSCE participating States—unite to firmly put Putin back where he belongs: isolated and outside the bounds of international society.” Other members of Congress traveling to Vienna included Helsinki Commission Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02), Commissioners Rep. Robert Aderholt (AL-04), Rep. Richard Hudson (NC-08), and Rep. Marc Veasey (TX-33), as well as Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18). Remote participants in the Winter Meeting included Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS) and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04). Although the meeting included a wide range of OSCE issues of concern, Russia’s brazen invasion of Ukraine dominated all discussion.  “Fundamental underpinnings of our security order, including commitments to respect other countries’ territorial integrity, sovereignty, and choices of security alliances, are at this moment being breached, flagrantly and deliberately, by one of our participating States, which is—as we speak—conducting an unprovoked invasion of another participating State,” said Rep. Hudson, who chairs the OSCE PA General Committee on Political Affairs and Security. “If Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he will not stop there—just as he did not stop with Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, and the Donbass. How can any of us realistically believe he will stop with Ukraine?” asked Sen. Wicker, who serves as a vice-president of the OSCE PA. “According to Putin’s twisted rationale, every former republic of the USSR is at risk. NATO is at risk. Every member of the peace-loving international community is at risk of being swept up into this conflict.” Members of the U.S. delegation directly challenged the egregious assertions of the few Russian delegates who attempted to justify their country’s naked aggression. Other issues raised by the U.S. delegation included human rights violations within Russia, as well as in Belarus and in areas of Ukraine under illegal occupation; ongoing concerns regarding human trafficking; and the assault on free media throughout the OSCE region.  Ahead of the Winter Meeting, members of the in-person delegation traveled to Lithuania to underscore U.S. support for a crucial NATO Ally at a time of deep concern caused by Russian aggression. In Vilnius, they met with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, and senior members of the Lithuanian Parliament (Seimas) to discuss the Russian assault on Ukraine, the deterioration of regional security, and Lithuania’s values-based foreign policy, including relations with China. The delegation also visited the Pabrade Training Area for briefings on U.S. and Allied military activities conducted in the region, and met with Belarusians and Russians who have fled to Lithuania to avoid persecution, including Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and other opposition leaders, members of the business community, civil society organizations, and the media.

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Discusses European Unity Against Russia

    Mr. Speaker, last week, I led a bipartisan group to visit Lithuania and the OSCE meeting in Vienna, Austria. In Lithuania, we met with the leaders and assured them of America’s Article 5 responsibilities and commitments in case Russia comes into Lithuania. They are very concerned. We met with our troops, who are 6 kilometers away from Russian troops stationed in Belarus. We then went to the OSCE in Vienna, and we led a strong response to support Ukraine and oppose an unbelievable invasion by the cruel Vladimir Putin. The European community is united, except for Russia and Belarus, in opposing the intrusion. Vladimir Putin is not operating in a rational manner. His KGB history and his extreme response to COVID have driven him to a delusional, paranoid, and dangerous state. It concerns all. I appreciate the actions of our President in supporting our country. I support President Zelensky, who is the Maccabee of his era, but the candle has only lasted so long. We need to get him more oil.

  • Ahead of OSCE PA Winter Meeting, Co-Chairman Cohen Reiterates Support for Ukrainian Sovereignty

    WASHINGTON—Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) today issued the following statement: “Over the upcoming Congressional recess, I am proud to be leading a bipartisan, bicameral delegation to the Winter Meeting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. In today’s climate of global uncertainty, engagement between foreign officials and members of Congress offers reassurance to U.S. allies about the commitment of the United States to peace, security, and prosperity in Europe and beyond. “Our delegation also will take the opportunity to visit other NATO Allies to consult with government officials in light of the unprecedented number of Russian forces deployed in and around Ukraine. While we originally planned to stop in Kyiv, the relocation of embassy staff necessitated the unfortunate cancellation of that portion of our itinerary. However, I would like to take this opportunity to reassure the Government of Ukraine of the steadfast support of Congress for Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression. Rest assured we will bring up support for your nation’s security at the OSCE PA meetings.”

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