Isabelle WESSELINGH, director of AFP Romania desk, published an insightful news article on the recent changes in the property restitution policy contemplated by the Romanian government of Prime Minister Mihai-Razvan Ungureanu, former head of the External Information Service, heir to the Securitate foreign branch. The article is available at:

BUCHAREST: After 20 years, Marian Dobre is still waiting to get compensation for property seized by the communists and plans by Romania’s cash-strapped government to slash payouts leave him feeling even more aggrieved. Dobre, a telecom engineer in Bucharest, has been trying to make good the loss of his grandfather’s property under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu but his quest has been caught up in endless bureaucracy, obstruction and now the government’s unwillingness to pay in full. Dobre moved into a block of flats in 1966 with his parents and grandparents after they were evicted from the small house his grandfather, a cart driver, had built “with all his heart.” The communist regime sent a bulldozer at night and we had to leave right away,” he says, in the living room of his apartment.

As the eurozone debt crisis hits the economy and following the EU lead to cut spending even more, the government wants to slash compensation for property seized between 1945 and 1989 to just 15 percent from 100 per cent. Last week, the government delayed the controversial bill, calling for a “national debate” on the issue. “We call for an extensive debate on this issue which is of national importance and of utmost gravity,” government spokesman Dan Suciu said, noting the opposition it has sparked, including from the Catholic Church, the US ambassador to Romania, rights groups and former property owners. “We want to take into account some observations we received,” Suciu said, adding that the bill – which would also stretch payouts over 10 or even 12 years – could be approved as early as this week. “We have to take into account fiscal constraints, especially after Romania agreed to the new EU fiscal treaty and that is why we proposed this 15 percent cap and payment in installments,” he said.

Finance Minister Bogdan Dragoi has said that full compensation for pending claims would cost 16 billion euros – half of it going to the Catholic Church. Prime Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu has acknowledged the “injustice”created by the bill but he blamed previous governments for not solving the issue earlier. Bucharest is under pressure from the European Court of Human Rights to adopt “unified and fair legislation” before July to solve one of the hottest issues since Ceausescu’s fall in 1989. Official figures show that about 80,000 former owners could be impacted by the bill if it is adopted while more than 2,000 cases are pending against Romania at the European Court of Human Rights. Press reports say that between 2006 and 2011, the National Agency for Property Restitution (ANRP) resolved 12,600 cases and studied 16,900 while 21,000 remained on file awaiting investigation. ANRP declined comment when asked by AFP about the issue.

Analysts are highly critical of the government’s record while noting that the issue of property compensation does not enjoy wide public support. Lavinia Stan, Associate Professor of Political Science at St. Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia, Canada who has written several papers on the subject says the bill is bad news. If adopted, it will amount to a “weakening of the rule of law, since property rights are protected by the constitution but trampled daily by the courts, the government, the police, etc. “Romanian democracy remains Orwellian – all are equal but some are more equal than others,” Stan charged.

For Dobre, “this bill is a big pain,” adding to the problems the family already faces as a 2007 court ruling ordering compensation of 1.09 million lei (230,000 euros) hangs fire even after it was upheld by the the supreme court. Their case was then handed to the ANRP, in charge of compensation payments, but still no money has been forthcoming. “We were confident”, Marian said, but then more problems came their way. “Just to see an ANRP legal adviser to see what was happening with our case, we had to come at 8:00 am in the morning and queue until sometimes 4:00 pm,”Marian’s wife Adriana says. “We were lucky we lived in Bucharest but you had people who travelled from remote corners of Romania, old people that got discouraged,” she adds. Then so-called “middlemen” approached them, offering to pay 40 per cent of the promised compensation immediately in exchange for full rights to the property. The Dobre family refused.

With cases held up for years at the ANRP, such middlemen obtained priority treatment, thanks often to connections and bribes, lawyers and human rights groups charge. At the end of 2010, the ANRP told the Dobre family they would receive by post within 30 days a decision in line with the compensation granted by the court. One year and five months later, they are still waiting. “When I see how the rule of law is trampled upon in this country, I really believe the future of my 12-year-old daughter is not here but abroad,” Marian Dobre says.