Serbian restitution law may imperil EU bid

Serbia’s new restitution law may threaten the Balkan country’s prospects for membership in the European Union, an official with neighboring Hungary said Thursday.

The law discriminates against Hungarians and other minorities and poses a “serious problem” to Serbian efforts to join the EU, Hungary foreign minister Janos Martonyi said.

The Serbian law relies on the unacceptable principle of collective guilt because it prevents Serbian Hungarians and others who were drafted into occupying armies like Hungary’s and Germany’s during World War II – and their descendants – from getting their property back, according to an Associated Press report.

The legislation defines Mar. 9, 1945, as the date when confiscation of private property and businesses began in Serbia, together with Feb. 15, 1968, when a second wave of confiscation was launched, according to IPS News.

“This is not an issue between Hungary and Serbia, but a European issue,” Martonyi told reporters.

Serbia had given Hungary assurances, later broken, that the bill would be changed before it was approved Sept. 26, Martonyi said.

Some 280,000 ethnic Hungarians live in Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina. Hungary, which lost the area in World War I peace treaties, regained control over parts of Vojvodina between 1941 and 1944 with the help of Nazi Germany.

Hungary fought alongside Nazi Germany for much of World War II.

“It is morally unacceptable for people who were forcefully drafted into an army … to be considered, along with their children and grandchildren, collectively guilty,” Martonyi said.

Serbia has declined to explain why it excluded from restitution those who fought on the side of occupying forces during World War II, but on Thursday signaled that a solution to the conflict was possible.

The restitution law was part of a reform package requested by the 27-nation European Union as one of the conditions for Serbia to become a candidate for membership. The EU says the regulation of property issues is key for the post-communist nation to move forward with reform and attract foreign investment, according to the Associated Press.

The law provides compensation for properties seized by the state during communism.

Where possible, properties are to be returned to the former owners or their heirs, but in the large majority of cases – to avoid complicated ownership disputes – the state is expected instead to give them installments totaling up to $687,000 in Serb bonds over the next five to 15 years.

Serbian government officials admit the law is not “ideal” but describe it as what the country can afford now during Europe’s debt crisis.

EU officials have said that Serbia’s law is in line with European legal standards, and that it does not sanction any form of collective punishment. The law provides for the possibility of individual rehabilitation of those who served or collaborated with Nazi armies, they said.

(Above: The Serbian parliament in Belgrade.)

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