Property restitution often beset by obstacles

10/07/2012

Serbian citizens have been able to file claims for restitution of property taken after World War II, but results are slow in coming.

By Lily Lynch for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 10/07/12

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Property restitution in Serbia is not without controversy. [Reuters]

Shortly after the Communists came to power in 1945, the new Yugoslav government confiscated the Belgrade tailoring business owned by Petar Milicevic's family.

"After one year, all of their machines were broken. The state didn't oil them properly. My family's property was destroyed due to lack of knowledge," Milicevic, the president of the Balkan Office of the European Bureau for Conscientious Objection, told SETimes.

As of March, Serbs like Milicevic can apply for restitution of property seized after World War II. Serbia passed a long-awaited law on restitution last year, a prerequisite for EU candidacy status.

While many Serbs at home and abroad filed claims for the return of their property, implementation of the law has proven difficult, with some groups facing additional obstacles, and slow procedures generally crippling the process.

The law stipulates the return of property, including land, to former owners or their heirs, and where property cannot be returned, financial compensation in the form of government bonds.

Controversially, the law says that what became government property after 1945, including libraries, embassies, government ministries, museums, healthcare institutions, and even artwork, will remain public property, not be returned to their former owners. Instead, these properties will be compensated for in the form of bonds, for which the state has allocated 2 billion euros -- about 6% of its GDP.

Other countries in the region also face controversy over property restitution. While Croatia passed its law on restitution in 1996, it only permits the restitution of property to people who were citizens of Croatia that year. The law does not apply to Croats whose property was confiscated, but who left Croatia and became citizens of other countries.

And according to the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, the restitution programme in Macedonia "proceeded extremely slowly and has been complicated by the extensive property ownership documentation required."

Though former owners and heirs have only been able to file claims under Serbia's new restitution law since March 1st, problems already surfaced.

"The courts are so slow. Our lawyers don't know the process. You must collect evidence of prior ownership, but even if you do that you don't know what you'll get back and when you'll get it. After 50 years we still don't know who the legal heirs to this property are," Milicevic told SETimes.

Desko Nikitovic, general consul of Serbia in the United States, agreed that there were many obstacles. As he told SETimes, "some people will not be able to claim due to lack of evidence; some people died and not kept records; people have moved all around the world."

While Nikitovic sees the potential for major problems in implementing the law, he also thinks that Serbia has "a moral obligation, as well as a practical" one to address this issue, and sees it as of particular importance to Serbia's large diaspora community.

"Serbia really cannot afford to ignore such a huge diaspora. But this is really more about justice and vindication for these people," Nikitovic said.

Ruben Fuks, president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia, told SETimes that Article 5 of the Law on Restitution says that a separate law would be passed to address the property taken from Jews during the Holocaust.

However, as Fuks said, "we are still waiting for the special law." Because most Jewish property was confiscated in 1941 and 1942, other residents may have moved into those homes in the intervening years. Some of those who moved into homes formerly owned by Jews are now filing claims for restitution of that property, as it was confiscated by the communist regime after the war.

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"We would like to have an amendment to the existing law, which would require claimants to present documents demonstrating how they arrived at the ownership of these properties," Fuks said.

The government, however, has opposed this idea.

Many see the return of property to the families of its rightful owners as more than a requirement for EU accession, but a measure of Serbia's moral and political progress.

"Many of us see restitution as proof of whether Serbia is truly a democratic country. If you are a democratic country you fulfil certain legitimate democratic expectations," Nikitovic said.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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