One of the largest baroque manor houses in Slovakia, Veľký Biel's Institute for Mentally Handicapped Women (in centre of frame) contains original 18th century Italian paintings and chandeliers.
photo: Courtesy Veľký Biel Institute for Mentally Handicapped Women
"They've got used to their beds, their rooms and the manor house," said Peter Bičan, the head of the clinic. "Any change in their environment could cause serious complications to their health. If they are moved out, they will have to be accompanied by 154 soldiers, because I myself can't safeguard their security."
The women's future depends on whether an agreement can be forged between the state and nine property claimants, to whom the manor house was returned as part of Slovakia's 'restitution process' 10 years ago.
Under the process of restitution, owners of property nationalised by the Communists in Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989 were entitled to reclaim their lost holdings.
Until now, the hands of those claiming ownership of the Veľký Biel site have been tied by a 10 year 'protection period' approved April 15, 1991 by the then Czechoslovak parliament, which forbade owners of property being used by the state to house 'social' patients, such as the mentally handicapped, from raising rents or evicting tenants.
But as of Monday, April 16, it is the state's hands which are tied. The protection period has expired, and the rightful owners of the manor house can legally do whatever they please with the property - including evicting patients housed by the state at rents far below market level.
The problem - what to do with the country's thousands of aged, handicapped or otherwise vulnerable tenants of state institutions - affects hundreds of buildings around Slovakia housing orphanages, retirement homes and other 'social' establishments.
"The 10 year protection period was established to give the state time to buy the properties from the owners, or to build new buildings altogether for these outcast inhabitants to move in to," said Mária Nadáždyová, head of the Social Assistance Department with the Social Affairs Ministry. "All Slovak governments [since the 10-year law was passed] have underestimated the problem. They didn't create any funding reserves to cover restitution claims, and now there is no money for it."
Until now, the state has been using buildings to house 'social' patients in the full knowledge of restitution claims on the same sites. The 'protection period' afforded had allowed the state to arrange advantageous rental contracts over the past decade; most of these contracts, however, expire at the end of this year or in 2002. Without further 'protection', the state will be forced to pay rents demanded by the owners, or find new lodgings for the inhabitants.
It's a financial equation that has no easy solution for Slovakia's cash-strapped government. In 1999 the state paid a total of six million Slovak crowns ($127,000) for 30 'restituted' buildings housing the handicapped and the aged. According to an estimate prepared by the Social Affairs Ministry, purchasing these buildings or building new sites would cost up to 230 million crowns.
"Given the complete lack of finances, the majority of solutions considered so far have been abandoned," the Social Affairs Ministry document reads.
Money is indeed at the root of the Veľký Biel manor house impasse, where the nine claimants have refused to renew the state's lease, which nets an annual rent of 1,013,000 crowns ($21,500) and which expired April 1. The state has not offered any increase in rent.
A lawyer representing the claimants, who wished to remain anonymous, accused the state of "blackmailing" her clients by offering an unacceptably low price, with the only option being the emotionally-charged eviction of the mentally handicapped women.
"In 1993, the state approved regulated rents for restituted buildings at a maximum of 250 crowns ($6) per square metre. This cap is still in place today, meaning my clients are being offered the 1993 price without regard to currency developments, inflation or the increased prices for real estate in general," the lawyer argued.
Branislav Longauer, head of the Bratislava Region Office, which is reponsible for solving restitution problems in the area, said that "it's not blackmail, we're just acting in accordance with the law."
According to Longauer, the Finance Ministry was working on an amendment to the Restitution Law which would permit the state to raise its rent offer.
The state has a second option in Veľký Biel - buying the manor house outright. But with the clinic's Bičan quoting a state property assessment at 6.5 million crowns, and the lawyer demanding 100 million, the two sides remain as far apart as ever.
"The protection period is over, and the state should behave like every other real estate buyer and pay market price," said the lawyer. "The state has to realise one thing. The women in the clinic have the right to demand that the state take care of them, but the claimants have full right to their property."
Some voices within the government are inclined to agree, with Nadáždyová of the Social Affairs Ministry saying "they [the state] should start serious negotiations and find the finances."
But according to Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik, the state is now "preparing analyses" of the situation, and "based on these analyses we will judge how acute this problem is."
Back in Veľký Biel, where Bičan has decided to challenge a 1995 court verdict returning the manor house to the original owners, the problem could not be more acute. The lawyer for the claimants says that Bičan's move is against the law, as court verdicts can only be challenged within three years of their delivery. The lawyer terms Bičan's tactics "immoral".
"The 1991 Restitution Law was the only law we had to undo the property and moral crimes of the Communists," she said. "By declaring his doubts that the Veľký Biel manor house belongs to my clients, Mr. Bičan is doubting the entire restitution process, which sends us back to the times before 1989."