Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 6
14 February 2000

T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
Retrieving Stolen Property
Mel Huang

Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the issue of property restitution has caused conflicts which go beyond the basic notion of the sanctity of ownership. Restitution is a catch-all tag, under which lie difficult questions of the actual restoration of nationalised (irrespective of it being a Nazi, Soviet, or other oppressive regime) property, the fate of plundered properties, the rights of the titular owners of such property, issues of dual and conflicting ownership and much more.

The headache is compounded in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania due to the three countries' unenviable status of being restored states, following 50 years of occupation and non-existence, and, in a way, represents the biggest restitution project of them all. Some parallels could be drawn with present-day Moldova and western Ukraine, as they also fell into the hands of Molotov-Ribbentrop. Restitution of nationalised property (from the first Soviet occupation, the Nazi occupation and the nearly half-century-long second Soviet occupation) also concerned the hundreds of thousands who fled their homeland and settled throughout the world. Questions of conflicting ownership, proof of ownership and rights of the previous owner all erupted during the years following the restoration of independence.

Beyond simply the fact of returning the property, post-restitution issues also arose at times. There are many cases of buildings returned to previous owners, who unfortunately have no money (sometimes simply no interest) in utilising the property. At times, these abandoned, decrepit buildings have become hideouts for the homeless or, worse, criminal and youth gangs, drug dealers and pushers. Despite municipal threats of seizing such abandoned properties, the problem remains unsolved.

The other large post-restitution issue concerns the rights of tenants. There are also many cases of building owners who, after getting their property back, face difficulties with Soviet-era tenants who refuse to pay rent or even utility bills. There are some ludicrous examples of beautifully restored and refurbished buildings with one or two flats which remain ramshackled. Tenants, on the other hand, argue that their rights were violated with the restitution of the building, as they faced pressure to pay sky-high rent and sometimes even undue pressure to vacate the premises. In many cases, such as in Estonia, there are rent control schemes for such situations. However, recently, landlords have filed complaints against the ridiculously low level of the controlled rent, suggesting it prevents basic maintenance of the affected buildings - such as plumbing, sewerage and potentially hazardous problems such as old electrical systems and faulty foundations.

However, for the Baltic states, restitution presents an added difficulty: Russia. During the late part of the Second World War, Soviet troops plundered many national treasures or seized the items already plundered by the Nazis without returning them to the rightful owners. A very obvious and symbolic item is the Estonian President's badge of office. The Soviet occupying force deported then President Konstantin Päts in 1940, and he died a decade later in a psychiatric hospital. Moscow has confirmed that it has in its possession the presidential badge, along with other items of significance to the Balts. However, a complicated piece of Russian legislation bars the return of any such items seized by the Red Army during the "Great Patriotic War." Though discussions continue between the Estonian and Russian cultural ministries, the badge remains a symbol of the problems still tied up with the issue of restitution.

Secondly, the occupation and illegal annexation of the three countries also involved diplomatic intrigues in the 1940s. At the time, most countries in Europe and North America followed the "non-recognition" policy which maintained some semblance of Baltic independence. Some others, a striking example being Sweden, did not and turned over nearly all of the property of the three countries to the Soviets - including gold sent for safekeeping and property belonging to diplomatic missions. However, even in some countries that followed a very basic form of the "non-recognition" policy, diplomatic buildings were delivered into Soviet hands. To this day, diplomats from the three countries are working to regain the ownership of such buildings in Paris and Rome. However, despite support from the French and Italian governments, the buildings are currently housing Russian diplomatic missions and thus are protected by diplomatic immunity. Although negotiations with French and Italian officials continue, not much can be done without Moscow's willingness to resolve these cases.

However, the whole issue of restitution of property - giving back property taken away illegally and unjustly to its rightful owners - will remain a problem for some time throughout the region. At times, the solutions are controversial and emotional, as modern legal solutions fail to satisfy or redress the wrongs of the past. But in a capitalist society such as that of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and most of Europe and North America, nothing is more sacred than the sanctity of ownership - even if it is belated by 50 years.

Mel Huang, 9 February 2000

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles


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Mel Huang:
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Sam Vaknin:
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Catherine Lovatt:
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Jan Čulík:
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