EDITORIAL

Restitution chaos: Finger-pointing betrays hypocrisy

Amid the whippings, waterings and brutish male revelry of the Slovak Easter holiday, an important date quietly slipped by. As of Easter Sunday, a 10-year old law that prevented some owners of property confiscated by the Communists from disposing of their holdings no longer applies.
As of April 16, people who after 1991 reclaimed property that houses hospital, educational, cultural or 'social' services (i.e. for mentally or physically handicapped patients, old people etc.) are free to raise rents or to evict their tenants and sell the real estate. During the previous decade, these owners had been prevented from doing either, under a law designed to protect vulnerable or impoverished tenants from losing their accommodation.
The new state of affairs has been covered by the Slovak electronic and print media as a case in which capitalist owners - those who got their property back under the 1991 'Restitution Law' - may be about to turn handicapped people and pensioners out of their beds without so much as a by-your-leave.

Amid the whippings, waterings and brutish male revelry of the Slovak Easter holiday, an important date quietly slipped by. As of Easter Sunday, a 10-year old law that prevented some owners of property confiscated by the Communists from disposing of their holdings no longer applies.

As of April 16, people who after 1991 reclaimed property that houses hospital, educational, cultural or 'social' services (i.e. for mentally or physically handicapped patients, old people etc.) are free to raise rents or to evict their tenants and sell the real estate. During the previous decade, these owners had been prevented from doing either, under a law designed to protect vulnerable or impoverished tenants from losing their accommodation.

The new state of affairs has been covered by the Slovak electronic and print media as a case in which capitalist owners - those who got their property back under the 1991 'Restitution Law' - may be about to turn handicapped people and pensioners out of their beds without so much as a by-your-leave.

In truth, however, these owners have waited 10 years to be able to take full possession of the land and buildings that had been stolen from them by the Communists. The 10 year 'protection period' passed by the Czechoslovak parliament in 1991 had been intended to give the government time to find alternative accommodation for students, hospital patients and citizens with nowhere else to go.

In the Czech Republic, the government opened a 'Restitution Fund' in 1993, fed by the proceeds from privatisation, which it used to buy many such facilities from their owners.

In Slovakia, however, this was never done, nor was any other provision made for housing such vulnerable tenants. The four ministries most affected by the law - the Education, Social Affairs, Health Care and Culture Ministries - tried in 2000 to have the 'protection period' extended for several years, but their proposal was not accepted by the government. Now, having sat on their hands for 10 years, state officials are offering the owners laughable purchase deals, and complaining that they don't have the money to find new lodgings for the current inhabitants. The owners are the villains in this version, and the handicapped the bewildered victims of their greed.

Nothing could be further from the truth, which is that successive Slovak governments have had ample funds with which to solve the problem, but have preferred to give it to their friends or spend it on lavish state projects.

What of the hundreds of billions of crowns in state property that was privatised to supporters of the 1994-1998 Vladimír Mečiar government? Or the almost 100 billion crowns in loans extended by state banks to firms that never paid them back?

What of the new 4.7 billion crown ($100 million) National Bank of Slovakia building in Bratislava, the tallest building in the country at 33 stories and 112 metres, which was undertaken because central bankers were tired of being housed in buildings scattered around the capital? Or the new 3.6 billion crown ($78 million) National Theatre building, started in 1986, seemingly a needless extravagance given the beauty of the current Slovak National Theatre?

What of privatisers like steel magnate Alexander Rezeš and his fleets of luxury limousines, his foreign villas? Of government members, past and present, who built and are building mansions they couldn't possibly have afforded on their declared incomes?

There has always been, and still is, enough money around to solve the current housing problem 10 times over. But greed, procrastination and populism have always had first feed at the public trough, which is why the nation's handicapped and aged face such uncertain times.

It may seem unfair to the current government that this is yet another bill left over from the Mečiar-era cleptocracy which it has to pay. But that's no reason to subject property owners, who have waited patiently for 10 years to have a wrong righted, to further delays and embroil them in an emotional public debate. Nor is it a reason to delay in finally giving the nation's poorest and politically least powerful citizens decent accommodation. Confiscated manor houses, let it be said, may be cheap, but they're hardly the best place for people who put more stock in comfort and accessibility than baroque architecture.

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