Trouble around land restitutions

MARTA Hykaníková, a 76-year-old retiree living in the small town of Nové Mesto nad Váhom in western Slovakia, has proven to be a boon for current and former Slovak politicians looking to buy land restituted from the Slovak Land Fund.

MARTA Hykaníková, a 76-year-old retiree living in the small town of Nové Mesto nad Váhom in western Slovakia, has proven to be a boon for current and former Slovak politicians looking to buy land restituted from the Slovak Land Fund.

In 1997, Hykaníková sold thousands of square metres of vineyards she had recovered through restitution in the Nové Mesto district of Bratislava to lawyer Anna Čukanová, who later sold 800 square metres of it to Prime Minister Robert Fico for a paltry Sk37,000.

Eight years later, the Land Group company of Bratislava, where former Economy Minister Ľubomír Harach (SDKÚ) holds a 27 percent stake, acquired over 30 hectares of agricultural land west of Bernolákovo that was returned to Hykaníková in restitution in June 2005. Today, the company plans to build housing for 2,000 people and a logistics park on the site, which is only 15 kilometres from downtown Bratislava.

Changes to the plan

Restitution refers to the process after 1989 by which land confiscated from private owners by the communists is restored to them or their descendants.

The land returned to Hykaníková was assigned a value of Sk2,490,177 by the Slovak Land Fund in June 2005, or Sk8,20 per square metre. The retiree was represented in the deal by Land Group's three managing directors - Jozef Fedorkovič, Peter Baliga and Čukanová from the earlier restitution - who signed the contract on her behalf based on a power of attorney agreement from December 2003.

"It was Čukanová who came up with Mrs Hykaníková," said Fedorkovič of Land Group. "We were dealing with a number of restituents, and she was one of them."

Čukanová refused to comment on her role in the transaction. "I don't know what the problem is or what I have to answer to. My client had a claim to property in the [Bratislava] Old Town, and in compensation received property in Bernolákovo, which was totally inadequate."

A week before the Slovak Land Fund (SPF), which handles restitution requests, transferred the Bernolákovo property to Hykaníková, Land Group asked the Bernolákovo city council for land planning information on the lots in question. SPF spokesman Ľudovít Kavjak said it is common practice for the Fund to negotiate on what land will be returned in compensation to restituents if the land that was originally confiscated is unavailable. "They apparently requested it [the Bernolákovo land]," he said.

Two months after the SPF restored the land to Hykaníková, Land Group acquired it through a contract signed on August 24, 2005. Fedorkovič refused to say how much the company had paid for the property. "I won't tell you the exact figure, but it was certainly more than Sk10 million," he said.

The following year, the company secured a change to Bernolákovo's land use plan, which earmarked the agricultural land for development as a new residential and industrial locality now known as Bernolákovo - Západ.

And last year, the National Highway Administration (NDS) agreed to build new access ramps at Triblavina on the D1 freeway between Bratislava and Trnava, linking Bernolákovo to the D1 with a new road bordering the Bernolákovo - Západ site.

"The owner of the land came up with the idea for the development at the end of 2005, and wanted to have it included in the town's land use plan," said Bernolákovo Mayor Ľubomír Poór. "It was a good deal for the town because it gave us access to the freeway. This was one of the main reasons we agreed to change the plan."

Added value

According to real estate professionals with knowledge of the area, with the change to the local master plan and the vital freeway link, the value of the land that was once restituted to Hykaníková is no longer Sk8,20 per square metre but more like Sk500, or over Sk150 million for the whole 30 hectares that Land Group controls. Moreover, once the required infrastructure is built, at an average cost of Sk500 per square metre, the land will be worth a minimum of Sk2,000 per square metre (Sk600 million overall).

"The value is much greater now because the land is included in the master plan, building permits have been issued, and all the necessary permits have been secured from the various state institutions," Poór explained.

Ján Vrba, who during communism served as a state prosecutor in Humenné in eastern Slovakia and who is now a Land Group co-owner, said that he and his "group" have not yet decided what to do with the Bernolákovo property. "It's unlikely that we'll go it alone because the costs would be too high," he said.

Vrba added that they were cooperating with the owner of the remaining 15 hectares of Bernolákovo - Západ, the company Bernolákovo Invest. "We're trying to act in unison, but it's hard," he said. He did not explain what problems the two firms might be having given that the managing director of Bernolákovo Invest is a lawyer who represents Land Group. "That's just a coincidence," said Ferdorkovič.

Who and how

Despite Vrba's insistence that the transaction had been lucrative for Hykaníková, the latter still lives in a modest semi-detached bungalow in Nové Mesto nad Váhom and claims not to even remember the deal, despite the fact it took place only three years ago.

"I sold everything 18 years ago," she said, waving a dishtowel from her driveway. "It doesn't interest me any more."

Nor were Land Group's other executives any more forthcoming. "What are you bothering me for at this number? I'm working. You're bothering me," said Peter Baliga. "Call the company, they'll tell you everything," said Harach. "We're looking at taking other steps. That's all from our side," said Čukanová.

Bernolákovo Mayor Poór admitted he was surprised at the low price the SPF had assigned the land, but said he was more focused on the benefits that the new freeway connection would bring to the municipality than on "who got the land, and how they got it".

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