Serbia: Property Restitution Row

Government attempts to restore nationalised property to its original owners are running into trouble.

Serbia: Property Restitution Row

Government attempts to restore nationalised property to its original owners are running into trouble.

Back in January, Darinka Tatalovic thought she'd at last been allowed to return to the house she had inherited from her father in the prestigious Belgrade district of Dedinje - but her hopes were short-lived.

Her father, Sava, was one of tens of thousands of victims of former president Tito's nationalisation programme. They had been ordered out of their homes in 1950 without a word of explanation.

Darinka waged a lengthy court case to reclaim her birthright. And in January judges ruled in her favour. But after spending four days waiting outside the house in freezing temperatures for officials to come and let her in, the police arrived and ordered her to leave.

This incident flies in the face of the promise by the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS, coalition to restore nationalised property to its original owners. The alliance had long claimed that it would return tens of thousands of homes and businesses, but once it got into power it realised that it couldn't afford to honour its pledge.

The problem stems from the fact that Milosevic allowed many of those living in nationalised property to buy their homes for peanuts and permitted local administrations to sell off a considerable amount for commercial purposes.

Since it is anticipated that very little of this will be returned to its original owners, the state will be left with a huge compensation bill which it can ill afford.

Draft legislation on restitution has been around for some time - and even praised by the international community. But its passage though parliament, originally slated for September 2001, has continually been put off because of the financial implications.

Sead Spahovic, chairman of the commission that drafted the bill, claims that it will be another two years before the government has the capacity to undertake the restitution project.

Those whose property was nationalised are planning to air their grievances at the Council of Europe, COE, which Yugoslavia is hoping to join in the very near future. They hope the COE will pressure Belgrade into solving the question of ownership once and for all.

Claimants have already announced that, on accession to the COE, they intend to bombard the European Court in Strasbourg with complaints in the knowledge that a similar strategy forced Romania to pass restitution legislation.

Meanwhile, the new authorities are continuing the old practice of selling nationalised property.

In the Belgrade municipality of Savski Venac plots of land once belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church were purchased without the church's knowledge. When one municipality chief intervened to stop the sale of nationalised property in Smederevska Palanka near the capital, he was dismissed and expelled from his party, which happens to be a member of the DOS coalition.

But the original owners of nationalised property have had some successes. Protests by a number of them forced the authorities to stop the sale of four hotels in Belgrade.

Lack of progress over property restitution is holding up the privatisation process which, in turn, is deterring foreign investors - a major source of concern for the government.

In an attempt to move things along, the authorities have suggested that five per cent of every privatised company could be set aside to reimburse those who lost out in the nationalisation programme. A swift calculation, however, shows that this would fall well short of the mark.

Milenko Vasovic is a journalist on the Belgrade daily Blic.

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