- January 19, 2016
Land restitution: déjà vu of the Soviet times
The competences in the field of land restitution that were taken away from local governments in the mid-1990s are to be given back. Central authorities decide to take such measures when in the trouble spots of the reform (Vilnius and its environs) there has been nothing to be restored for a long time.
Taken away from local governments – handed over to counties
In the mid-1990s, when the agrarian reform was just developing, central authorities made a political decision according to which the competences in the field of restitution of the land once nationalised by Soviet authorities were to be taken away from local governments chosen in free elections and handed over to centrally appointed counties. From the beginning the reasons for this decision were clear – the authorities wanted the local governments in the Vilnius region to be removed from power over the land restitution. In this way, they intended to severely inhibit local Poles, whose interests were looked after by local governments in the Vilnius area, from being restored their patrimony.
Earlier, yet another attempt at the ejection of Poles from their land had been made. Some of the Lithuanian politicians pushed through such statutory provisions that would not accept documents of ownerships issued by Polish authorities in the interwar period in the Vilnius region. Eventually, this idea failed, as it was too vivid a violation of all the international legal norms dealing with the “sacred right of property.”
The incapacitated local governments protested against the authorities’ designs on the Vilnius land and its environs. They had some bitter experience already, when the so-called “governors” had lawlessly divided the land around Vilnius among the contemporary politicians, relatives, and friends taking advantage of the fact that local governments had been “spoiled” by the authorities. Hundreds of parcels had been given away for a song by “governor” Merkys just like that. He never bore any responsibility for such unlawfulness.
Relocation procedure – with a whip to the locals
Another way of appropriating the land nearby Vilnius was the procedure of relocation legitimised in the restitution act. The corruption-generating law made the former owner able to once again run his former estate in a somewhat magical way. He just had to submit an application to the agrarian regulations authorities in which he had written that he did not want to regain his actual land (so in the place where it had been before the nationalisation), but he would just like to have it… and that’s the point – he was allowed to choose any corner of Lithuania. It is not hard to predict that the most desired and precious “corner” in Lithuania was indeed the Vilnius region.
This law, which would bring on corruption and nepotism on an unimaginable scale in the future, was introduced to the act by politicians in order to make colonising of the Vilnius region possible. As an interesting aside, years later, when Lithuanian journalists at last made the tremendous corruption related to the relocation public, some attempted to ascertain who was the godfather of such a corruption-generating amendment in the Seimas. Journalists fought with the Seimas authorities for a long time so that they would reveal the name of the Member of Parliament who was the author of the infamous act. It turned out, however, that any trace of the documentation had somehow disappeared. And so the media employed some deductive methods and after all tracked the culprit down. According to the inquisitive journalists, it was a conservatist (earlier, the founder of a small republican party not participating in elections), Saulius Pečeliūnas. It is a very probable track, taking into account that Pečeliūnas – as the Signatory – unceremoniously queued up even twice to get very attractive and expensive parcels in Vilnius for free. Eventually, the proceeding had to be stopped by the Constitutional Court, which stated that the distribution of land to people who had contributed to the good of the country was unconstitutional. The Court compared the practice to the medieval times, when kings would give away land in an act of apportionment to the distinguished subjects.
Act changed over 180 times
The regulation under which a piece of land could be relocated in any place in Lithuania was not enough for the interested politicians, since in the procedure of land regaining the restitution act took an order into consideration and it favoured former owners getting back their actual land (if it was occupied, they had priority in obtaining the first free parcels from apportionment). Of course, it proved an obstacle for the greedy politicians, agrarian reform officials, measurers, and – as it would turn out later – common thieves.
In order to evade this order-minding obstacle, the act was manipulated every now and then, most frequently in the interest of specific influential groups or people. To realise how big the manipulation scale was, let me draw attention to the fact that the restitution act was changed in the Seimas more than 180 times as the researchers would later count. It was altered on an ad hoc basis so that one interested in the attractive land in the area of Vilnius was able to evade or sometimes even eliminate the hampering rivals, so the lawful owners. In this way, the land in Vilnius and its environs that once had belonged to local Poles was very often given to non-local people who had never owned it.
The appropriated land
So as not to present the facts without any proofs, I will give a few typical examples; the “Lietuvos rytas” newspaper has even written of one of the more well-known ones. In Avižieniai nearby Vilnius, in an attractive place, a very strange procedure of land measuring-out took place. It happened at night, and the food-provider was measured secretly by the light of torches. Only after some time locals, who themselves had not regained their patrimony, found out that it was Vytautas Landsbergis’s wife who was the culprit of the secret measurement. She took the parcel from apportionment that according to the legal order should be given to the Wasilewski family. Their patrimony in that place was partly occupied, and so the land that was taken by Landsbergienė and her queue-jump had been to be given back to the Wasilewski.
Another characteristic case is one concerning so to say symbolic land, as it is located in the very centre of Europe, that has been identified near Pikeliškės in the Vilnius environs. A Vilnius woman fought for her patrimony for years there without success. As she went from one court to another, a prominent Lithuanian politician took a part of it (of course, using the relocation procedure). Then, the area in the centre of Europe became a national park. Naturally, the act was changed prohibiting restitution of land even in its actual location if it was a national park. The manipulation effect: one who had never had their own land in the centre of Europe has it now after the so-called restitution, and one who had had it before the nationalisation now does not have anything.
When the Lithuanian media at last woke up and got interested in the acts of stealing the land around Vilnius, it turned out that the right to the most expensive and attractive areas had been claimed by politicians (often by those from newspaper covers), prosecutors, senior public officers, agrarian reform officials of course, measurers (obviously relatives, friends, and acquaintances of all the mentioned as well), and common thieves.
The land restitution in the Vilnius region is a political matter – such a statement has escaped lips of Arvydas Klimkevičius, one of the former Vilnius-county governor, during a press conference. Later, the dozy politician tried to explain himself and backtrack, but it was needless – what he had said in that fit of honesty had been known by everyone for a long time.
The relocation was invented just for the reason of populating the areas nearby Vilnius with as large number of Lithuanian people as possible using an administrative method, thus decongesting the dense concentration of local Poles there. And that happened indeed. I do not have to say that as a result of such proceeding those who relocated the land were the ones who grew rich, and those whose attractive patrimony had been extorted lawlessly were the ones who lost out.
We know of cases when the agrarian reform officials in Vilnius rang their country colleagues themselves so that they filed as many applications for relocations as possible. The intention was to change the demographic state of the Vilnius region effectively, as it had been done before the war in the Kaunas region (ironically, also by means of an agrarian reform).
Unfortunately, all of this made the goals of the reprivatisation act never able to be achieved for lots of local Poles living in Vilnius and its environs, because their land, just as the one of the Soviet times, has been appropriated by the ineligible again. Let’s note it down for the history…
Translated by Karolina Katarzyńska within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.