Polish Toledo

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

I'd Like My Palace Back, Please

Anna Wolska, a frail 83, hardly looks like a potential threat to Poland's government finances. But she is.

That is because she is an heir to one the country's pre-war aristocratic families, people who had their property confiscated without compensation by the communists after the war and are now trying to get either the property back or at least some kind of restitution.

Poland is the only post-communist European Union member not to have resolved the issue of communist-era nationalizations. There have been about 20 failed attempts to deal with the issue since 1989, and now the government of Donald Tusk, the country's prime minister, is promising to pass a law this year bringing the process to a close.

The stakes for Poland are enormous, in relation to both government finances and the country's relations with allies such as the US and Israel. Miroslaw Szypowski, head of the Polish Union of Property Owners, one of the largest groups seeking compensation, estimates that as many as 200,000 people have potential claims against the government. They come to as much as 80bn zlotys ($38bn) - about a quarter of the central government's annual spending.

Mrs Wolska's childhood home is Wilanow, Poland's grandest palace [see photo below], the home of several kings and, following the war and the imposition of communist rule, a national museum. Her family has been fighting, so far without success, for the return of land around the palace - now enormously valuable - and of property from inside the palace such as paintings and furniture.

"They should give back what can be given back," says Mrs Wolska, surveying two ancestral portraits at the manor house 70km south of Warsaw where she spends her summers.

On a recent visit to Israel, Mr Tusk said there would be restitution, but he stressed any reimbursement "would be a not very high percentage of what was lost and paid out over many years".

Successive governments have failed to resolve the issue because it is politically fraught, and many Poles are not in favour of paying out vast sums to the grandchildren of Poland's prewar elite. One law passed parliament in 2001 but was vetoed by Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president.

In any compensation scheme, the largest individual beneficiaries would be people like Mrs Wolska, heirs of land-owning families whose property was nationalised or outright stolen by the communists.

Source: Financial Times
July 5 2008


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