Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BALKANS: Serbs Bank on EU Laws to Regain Seized Property

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Dec 28 2009 (IPS) - Prominent theatre actor Tanasije Uzunovic loves to take long walks in the large Kalemegdan Fortress Park but generally avoids the Dedinje neighbourhood, a more popular green zone in the Serbian capital.

“Walking through Dedinje sets off bitter reminders,’’ Uzunovic told IPS. Set into the neighbourhood is a huge villa, now the residence of the United States ambassador, that belonged to his grandfather Nikola before World War II.

Nikola Uzunovic was four times prime minister of what used to be the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Today’s Serbia was one of its parts, and Tanasije Uzunovic is one of 140,000 people who have filed requests for restitution of property seized by communists when they came to power in 1945.

“When the war ended, the communists gave this villa as a gift to the U.S., for the ambassador’s residence. My family was left without anything from my grandfather who was proclaimed ‘capitalist enemy of the state’,’’ Uzunovic said. “We’re waiting to see what happens next,” he added.

Serbia has no law on restitution and Uzunovic and the others are resting their hopes on a successful outcome to Serbia’s filing for membership of the European Union (EU) on Dec. 22 – a long standing goal since the change of regime in 2000 and the final fall of communism.

EU candidacy involves synchronisation of more than 100,000 laws and bylaws and these include a law on restitution of private property seized by communist regimes after WW II.

All former East European nations that have become EU members, such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania, began or finalised restitution processes during the 1990s.

Some former Yugoslav nations, such Croatia, are almost done with restitution while Macedonia and Montenegro began the process several years ago. Slovenia, the only former Yugoslav nation that has been admitted into the EU, has almost finished its process.

“Serbia is the only nation where the law for the rightful restitution of property or its value are [yet] to be adopted,” coordinator of the Network for Restitution, Mile Antic, told IPS. “The heirs of pre- WW II owners are fully aware that there has to be a mode for restitution and our records show that the value of property to be given back to heirs of rightful owners is 3.25 billion US dollars,” he added.

Statistics collected by the Network, an association of citizens who claim ownership rights as heirs, show 140,000 cases submitted to Serbian ministry of finance in 2006 when the possibility of restitution of property was first mentioned.

At the time, descendants of some of the wealthiest Serbian families before WW II claimed the value of property to be 30 billion dollars. However, international experts estimated the value to be significantly lower, at 3.25 billion dollars.

According to Slobodan Ilic, state secretary at the ministry, there is little possibility of a state such as Serbia paying money directly to the legal heirs of former property owners.

“For years, we have been receiving notes such as ‘my grandfather had arable land and forests taken away by the state in 1945,’ but the time has come for claimants to provide us with proper titles, ownership papers, and in some cases, proof of relationship,” Ilic said in an interview with B92 Radio.

“There is no guarantee that everything will be paid back to them, but 30 percent of real value of property or return of land, arable or for construction where possible, would be a proper way,’’ Ilic said.

Statistics collected by the ministry since 2006 show that citizens claim some 300,000 hectares of arable land, 246,000 ha of construction terrain, 42,000 ha of woods and 12,861 houses.

The restitution has only begun for land owned by the influential Serbian Orthodox Church, which, according to Antic, shows that “there’s lack of political will to resolve the problem.”

According to Antic the issue is complicated by the fact that a process of privatisation, on since 2000, included sale of land and real estate taken away since WW II, thus causing “repeated damage” to primary owners.

“That is why foreign investment has almost been halted for the time being. No one wants to buy something that a former owner might want to have back – construction terrain or even business premises in Belgrade,” he said.

“It makes no sense now, after so many years, to quote the value of the first garage and biggest car repair shop in Belgrade before WW II,” Belgradian Vladimir Petrovic, a member of the Network, told IPS. “So much was invested in more than 50 years by other people who worked there and took care of it. But there certainly has to be a way to compensate us and correct the injustice we suffered.’’

Meanwhile, a draft law on restitution is yet to be handed over to the Serbian Parliament, despite promises to the EU that this would be done before the end of this year. The Serbian budget for 2010, adopted last week, simply does not have provisions for restoration.

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