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Serbian heirs hope for return of communist-seized property

07 october 2011, 15:42
For over sixty years, Kosta Banovic has avoided the street where his parents' house has been home to someone else since it was seized by Yugoslavia's communist regime following World War II, AFP reports.

He lived there for only three years, but vividly remembers playing in the lush garden hidden from the street by hundred-year-old pine trees.

Now Banovic and more than 150,000 people like him -- original owners or their heirs -- have a ray of hope that their property might be returned as Serbia finally adopted thsi past week a law on the return of property confiscated by the communist regime.

"My parents are long dead, but their last wish was for me to return to live in our house," Banovic told AFP.

Bozidar Djelic, Serbia's minister in charge of EU integration, said that by adopting the law the Balkans country "will correct a huge injustice done after World War II."

Passing the restitution legislation was also a key condition to become an EU candidate member which Belgrade hopes will happen later this year.

Experts estimate the total cost of restitutions and compensation packages could reach around 4.5 billion euros ($6.1 billion).

According to the law, a property may be returned if the current owner agrees, if not the original owners will be compensated up to a maximum of 500,000 euros in cash or bonds.

The state can also restitute property, but it does not need to be the exact property that was seized, which means that it can offer remote forest lands to compensate for prime urban locations.

Nikola Majkic, whose family lost a chain of shoe stores in the first wave of nationalisation, is not optimistic he will get his family's shops back.

"The ten shops and a little production hall that my family owned ... have changed owners three times since the fall of communism" in 1990s, Majkic said.

"Only a really naive person would believe that the new owners ... will agree to return the property," he added.

After World War II, the authorities of then communist Yugoslavia -- of which Serbia was one the constituent republics -- confiscated property and businesses from thousands of people.

Other former Yugoslav republics have already settled the issue or are in the final stages of returning property or compensating former owners.

Since the fall of communism, original owners and their heirs -- most of whom had been living abroad-- have pushed for legislation on restitution.

About 150,000 claims have already been filed by those seeking the return of assets that include also industrial property and farm land.

There is no precise data on the amount of seized property, a brief analysis of state archives indicates that more than 700 million square meters of real estate -- private flats, houses and villas -- were confiscated.

Industrial facilities are even harder to track as many have long changed their line of work or went bankrupt following the switch from a state-run economy during the communist times to a market-based one.

Mile Antic of the Network for Restitution, an association grouping original owners and their heirs, said the new law does not go far enough to compensate owners or address the injustice the families have suffered.

"The state owns at least thirty times more construction or agricultural land than the former owners are seeking to be returned," Antic told AFP.

For Bogdan Veljkovic, a banking expert whose family was among the wealthiest in Serbia in the 1930s, a limited financial compensation means the old owners will get only "crumbs".

"I want my family property as it was, so I could revive it with other shareholders," said Veljkovic, whose family owned a bank, a hotel and the first brewery in Serbia, among other things.

Banovic has more simple desires.

"I have been guarding my feelings and hopes for so long that now I only want to spend a day in my old garden and pay tribute to my long-gone parents and family," he said.

The former owners are not the only ones affected by the new law. Some 40,000 so-called protected tenants -- who were moved into flats and houses seized by the communists -- fear they will be evicted when the properties are returned to the original owners.

"We asked the authorities to compensate the original owners and enable us protected tenants to buy these flats, but nothing happened," complained Vlastimir Ilic, a member of one such tenants association said.

Ilic fears that his daughter will find herself on the street after his death, as she is not allowed to take over the lease, even though the family have lived there for decades and invested "thousands of euros" into its upkeep.

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