A debate has been taking place the last several months on the so-called big restitution law. While the fact the government is taking steps aimed at regulating the issue of restitution should be applauded, the solutions in the draft legislation raise substantial doubts. Unfortunately, the big restitution law excludes in an ahistorical manner the legal heirs of most prewar owners of landed estates, industrialists and Polish Jews, who – like hundreds of thousands of other Poles – decided to emigrate and over time acquired citizenship of other countries.
Restrictions based on citizenship are being disputed and have damaged Poland’s image on the international arena.
Particular interest in this aspect of the big restitution law has been shown by Israel and other entities representing the Jewish diaspora, including the World Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. Their opposition to it is all the more understandable considering that, according to studies, about 25% of all restitution claims belong to Jewish people.
Partly on account of pressure from public opinion and the detrimental effects of its controversial provisions on Poland’s image, the draft law was returned to the Ministry of Justice for further work.
But this only means we are back at point zero, and this state of affairs puts the national treasury at risk of incurring even greater costs connected with returning real property (if it currently belongs to the state treasury or local government bodies) or paying compensation (if the claimed property is now privately owned).
It is hard to forecast what will happen with the big restitution law. There appear to be three possibilities:
- The draft law is completely reworked – restrictions based on citizenship are eliminated, thus enabling citizens of other countries (including Israel) to claim compensation for property illegally taken from them. In this case, claimants will have to quickly react by submitting applications to establish their right to compensation. The time limit for submitting such an application would most likely be one year from the date the law goes into effect.
- The draft law is altered, but its citizenship restriction is retained. In this case, claimants should quickly confirm their Polish citizenship or apply to have it restored, then submit a claim for compensation (most likely within the time frame mentioned above).
- The government ceases its efforts to enact the legislation, thus claimants will have to seek the return of assets or payment of compensation on the basis of existing piecemeal regulations, via administrative proceedings or court and administrative proceedings, followed by civil proceedings. In this case there are no restrictions based on citizenship, but the entire procedure is very long and time-consuming.
Regardless of which of the three scenarios is chosen by the government, a serious obstacle to resolving the problem of restitution in Poland is the dearth of data about it, which has left the public, politicians, and even lawyers and economists floundering in a factual vacuum filled by assumptions, guesses and distortions. First of all, we lack reliable data about the scale of the financial effects of restitution as it has been conducted so far (in the absence of a law specifically regulating it). Calculations about how much it will cost also have limited credibility. And these forecasts need to be made for each proposed variant of the restitution law, from the most liberal solutions (covering broad groups of claimants) to the most restrictive. Only the presentation of solid data will enable reliable analysis of the problem, which is necessary to formulate a law, acceptable to the majority, which finally puts to rest the lawless Communist past and secures a lawful future for contemporary Poland.