Thursday, April 18, 2013

Romania moves toward closure on compensating communism's victims

By Radu Marinas

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania expects to pass legislation this week to compensate all owners of property seized under communism, seeking to draw a line under a haunting past more than 20 years after the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu.

Bucharest has lagged behind other former Soviet satellites in central and eastern Europe in addressing its communist past. Some senior officials from that era remain in high office, while hardly any crimes have been prosecuted.

Long-entrenched bureaucracy and corruption still hold back an economy that is the European Union's second poorest and struggling to emerge from a deep recession.

Seizures of property began in 1945, immediately after World War Two when Soviet-backed communists set about eradicating the middle classes by abolishing private ownership. A special nationalization decree was issued in 1950.

"The law we propose aims to bring historical reparation to all those who suffered confiscation since about 70 years ago," Prime Minister Victor Ponta told parliament on Wednesday.

He asked the assembly, where he commands an overwhelming majority, to endorse the plan, a step expected later this week.

Since the 1989 revolution that led to Ceausescu's trial and execution, human rights groups have repeatedly criticized Romania for failing to restore property. An earlier restitution scheme was derailed by inefficiency, red tape and scams.

Despite prior legislation, only 15 percent of all restitution claims have been solved. Under the new bill, Ponta committed to a clear time frame and set aside 8 billion euros ($10.5 billion) to ensure all claims of victims of nationalization are settled by 2017.

The leftist cabinet had been given a May 12 deadline by the European Court for Human Rights, which has about 3,000 lawsuits on property issues filed against Romania, to pass the law.

The government said it was needed because previous legislation was too complicated and 200,000 restitution cases had yet to be solved in the country of 19 million people.

Many dispossessed owners were forced to live in tiny storerooms or bathrooms. The 1950s, under Ceausescu's predecessor Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, were the harshest period for land, building and industrial plant owners.

Ceausescu deepened the problem with his plan for "village systematization", under which he wiped out entire rural communities and moved people to towns - a scheme that was stopped when he was overthrown.

Ponta said Romania has so far paid 150 million euros cash in compensation for seized property, about 4 billion euros in shares of Fondul Proprietatea - a fund set up to compensate victims of communism, as well as turning over some 10,000 buildings and 1.3 million hectares of farmland. ($1 = 0.7616 euros)

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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