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A letter by a British citizen living in Croatia

Jurjevska 12  

10000 Zagreb

Croatia

 

Tel: +385 01 4668 217

 

E-mail:

anthony-john.dawe@zg.t-com.hr

30 November 2004

  

OSCE

Mission to the Republic of Croatia

Florijana Andrešeca 14

10000 Zagreb

 

For the attention of Mr. Axel Jaenicke

 

Dear Sir,

 

Subject: ABUSE OF HUMAN RIGHTS – DENIAL OF OCCUPANCY/TENANCY RIGHTS TO CITIZENS THROUGHOUT THE REPUBLIC OF CROATIA

 

Firstly, I apologize for the length of this letter, but I respectfully and most earnestly entreat that you find the time to read it to the end, as it describes the wretched, shameful, endemic and unconstitutional state of affairs that has been suffered for many years by thousands of families occupying private accommodation in the Republic of Croatia.

 

Being a British citizen and having lived in Croatia since 1982 (my wife is a Croatian national), and knowing the just and equitable situation that exists in the United Kingdom and, I assume, elsewhere in Western Europe, I am appalled at the lamentable state of affairs that has been endemic in this country for many years with regard to the total lack of legal protection afforded to many thousands of families in Croatia who have lived in privately owned accommodation (which had subsequently been nationalized and then again, some but not all, returned to private ownership), many of them for as long as 70 years, i.e. getting on for three generations. Here, I think I should clarify what constituted occupancy/tenancy tenancy rights in the former Yugoslavia were. They differed considerably from their legal status in other countries of Western Europe. In the former Yugoslavia a person was given occupancy/tenancy rights to an accommodation, and it carried the same legal validity whether the accommodation was state built, nationalized private property or nominally privately owned. The right was of a permanent nature, and the holder had the right to exchange his or her home for another accommodation covered by tenancy right – regardless of the status of the nominal owner, without having to refer to that owner. But occupancy/tenancy rights in the former Yugoslavia also involved obligations. Holders of such rights were legally obliged to maintain the accommodation, and that maintenance did not involve merely changing bulbs and keeping taps from dripping. It ranged from decoration, ensuring that installations were up to scratch; that problems of damp were resolved – all in all, tenants were obliged to undertake everything that one normally does in one’s own home. And people did it, safe in the knowledge that they were investing in their own homes, which their children were lawfully entitled to inherit, generations of a family (now going well into a third generation), investing all their earnings in the property. My wife’s parents did, my wife and I continued to do it. Everything they have earned, and everything we have earned, went into our home – floors, central heating, new doors, windows, new installations, entire sanitary facilities; in short, everything in our home, we did.

 

Come 1991, come the new Croatia, most occupancy/tenancy rights holders were given the right to buy their homes for about 10% of their market value – which was a proper price since they already owned 90% of the accommodation on the basis of their occupancy/tenancy right. Although certain properties were exempted – as, for instance, those which were confiscated, those occupied by the military, villas in particularly attractive locations (!) – eventually a vast majority was made available to them for purchase to those holding occupancy/tenancy rights (all military accommodation was sold; a significant number of confiscated properties in the Portfolio of the Privatization Fund was re-categorized as nationalized and sold to the tenants, and now a relatively small number of confiscated properties (some 300 units) remains unsold; of the “attractive villas”, as far as I know, only two remain unsold, etc.)) Homes in nominally private ownership, occupied by people who were allocated such accommodation with the status of “users” (and who did not hold occupancy/tenancy rights) were also made available for purchase to those “users” – the basis being that this was decided in the name of “social justice”.

 

Throughout this period those in power and those close to it, those who had made their fortunes during and after the war, were acquiring property – be it their own homes in which they actually lived, or be it quite new acquisitions. If they lived in a house with several flats they invariably “rounded off” their property by disposing of other tenants – through means which leave a lot to be desired – and if people living in those flats were provided with replacement accommodation it was at the expense of the tax payer, not out of their own (the owners’) pockets. And to allow themselves to do that “legally”, amendments were introduced, laws tailored, court decisions based on “windows of opportunity” (some lasting only 48 hours) were rushed through, flat allocations backdated so as to enable certain individuals to buy those “freshly” allocated accommodations at favourable prices. In fact, this manipulation went so far that the country, or rather its Government, knowingly delegated a judge (one Nina Vajić) to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, a judge who herself is (and was) involved in a court case with a tenant in the flat she owns, thus transferring a smear of their own practices, bearing in mind her blatantly obvious conflict of interest, onto the highest European court. And once they secured their acquisitions, concern for what is now their private property became dominant, and laws were again changed accordingly. It has to be stressed that over fifty per cent of those in power who acquired property – be it in those early days or more recently, be it “privately” owned or nationalized, or state owned – have never lived in those flats or houses, but even so they managed to buy them for 10%, and even less, of their value. As I have already said, laws were tailored to suit their needs – this was not difficult as they themselves were the law makers.

 

Some, however, were not so lucky. First, the Law was amended and a ban was placed on the right to purchase “privately” owned homes. Then, in 1996, occupancy/tenancy rights were abolished, and people living in these homes were given the status of “protected” tenants. The next step was to amend the Housing Law by doing away with the Articles providing actual protection for tenants.

 

Today, there are at least 7000 families in this country who once held occupancy/tenancy rights to a nominally “privately” owned accommodation, who have been effectively dispossessed of the property they had been legally acquiring for generations, who are going through psychological hell and who have been doing so for many years, and in addition ever fearful that, should they leave their home unattended for any length of time (holidays, excursions, or even shopping locally), on their return they would find their entrance doors bricked up, or door locks changed, their possessions thrown out into the street, water supply disconnected, etc., etc., all these by no means uncommon occurrences and with those so affected, often the aged and impecunious, totally devoid of any recourse through courts of law to reverse the situation, with judges invariably finding for the nominal owner (which I find somewhat curious), always supposing that the tenant is able to afford legal representation. Their “protected status” is only a sham. For instance, one is a protected tenant until the nominal owner decides he wants the flat, whether for his own occupation or to sell on the open market. Further, if a tenant is, for instance, performing some activity in that flat that could be construed by the nominal owner to be a business activity, such as, say, translation work, then rent can be adjusted to the level of an “economic rent”, which would be far in excess of the present protected rent. And so people who have been investing all their earnings in their homes are now prohibited from working in those same homes, unless they pay that “economic rent”. This is, of course, designed to intimidate the tenant into ceasing to earn the wherewithal to put bread on the table, obliging him or her to accept whatever deal the owner forces upon him or her. No provision is made for adequate replacement accommodation and, in the event that an owner does decide on his own to provide replacement accommodation, there is no provision specifying what type of accommodation it should be, or where – which means that people are torn out of their home ground and thrown to wherever the owner may choose. It is also worth remembering that the same conditions apply in that new accommodation – no working in the accommodation, which again means that one could ultimately end up on the street. Just like serfs occupying tied accommodation, once upon a time. And all the investments made in those accommodations throughout many decades are being totally ignored.

 

Those familiar with the Rachmanism (the exploitation and intimidation of tenants by unscrupulous landlords) rampant in the United Kingdom in the early 1960s will be able to draw distinct parallels here, although on this occasion both government and nominal owner inspired.

 

The following situation is representative of a socially unjust, country-wide situation: a certain family has occupied a 130-square-metre flat since 1952 (the flat was nationalised in 1958 and subsequently mysteriously privatised in the 1960s.) Since its occupation in 1952 not only has the flat been maintained in excellent condition (when first occupied it was almost derelict and everything that was needed to be make it habitable was undertaken – complete electrical re-wiring, plumbing modernised, new installations, floor, doors, windows, central heating, sanitary facilities…) it has also been completely furnished and carpeted and contains many antique items, some larger some smaller; in excess of 5,000 books (works of literature, historical records, some 850 dictionaries and reference books, upwards of 100 metres of bookshelves) and all else that makes a residence habitable. In order to regain possession of the flat, the nominal owner (who owns his own residence in Opatija) has offered a damp, 54-square-metre flat, accessible only via a flight of 75 steps, with no consideration for the fact that one family member has a serious heart ailment and totally disregarding the fact that the family would have to dispose of the vast majority of its possessions accumulated over a 52-year period, and in addition to the fact that their way of life, social, physical and intellectual, would be wrecked. There is no provision for compensation for all this (and anyway, how can one be compensated for 50-odd years of family life?) In fact, the whole issue has been totally ignored by subsequent governments. And here we come back to the problem of a state which so blatantly denies not only legally acquired rights (in this case occupancy/tenancy rights) but with the door to such practices wide open what is to stop “them” from applying it in other walks of life or business, but it also violates the very foundation of the U.N. Charter on Human Rights; Articles 1., 3., 14., 30., 35. and 61 of the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia; Articles 6., 8., 17. and 60. of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the First Protocol (Paris 1950), Article 1. to the European Convention on Human Rights. A state whose successive governments since 1991 and which, for reasons best known to themselves, have been reluctant to resolve the situation in a lawful manner, have seemed content to sit back and await the bureaucratic convenience that old age (of tenants) brings with death.

 

We are being told that the criteria for all the successor countries of the former Yugoslavia will be the same for all. How can it be, therefore, that the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina has, with the full approval of the E.U. representative, recognized occupancy tenancy rights as property. But E.U. bodies in Croatia are not in favour of such a solution. Why? Perhaps they have heard, and have adopted, the opinion of a high ranking political personage now in power in Croatia who, during the first mandate of his party, declared publicly, quite calmly and openly that “…the values interwoven in our Constitution are but academic categories.”

 

That such a philosophy still prevails is proven by the fact that following the signing of the Laws on Succession, a constituent part of which is Annex G – which deals with occupancy/tenancy rights, guaranteeing the same without discrimination on any basis – but which this Government is interpreting as being applicable only to those who left this country during the Croatian War of Independence, and who are now returning to Croatia and demanding their rights, but not to those of us who have remained here all the time, as though we had not all been citizens of that Yugoslavia and are therefore covered by the same laws. Even the present President of Croatia has embraced such a perception of political power – recently stating in this context that “…the only thing that will not be returned are occupancy/tenancy rights.” At the same time, Croatia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs is participating in a conference involving the 25 E.U. member countries and five candidate members for E.U. membership where, among other agreements he signed, was one on the prevention of discrimination. Really!

 

Has it really come to this that Croats and other citizens of this land who never abandoned her have now legally been categorized as second class citizens? Are we to believe that the European Union, so swift to condemn any form of discrimination, would accept, indeed according to the local interpreters of Annex G, actively promote, such blatant, cynical and shameless discrimination? If, however, that is actually true, if the European Union does condone segregation on whatever basis – whether it be under the pretext of an inter-state contract or any other heading; if equality, democracy and the rule of law are only for the Chosen, if that is truly so, then the people in power, those in their close orbit and those with money, here and throughout Europe, have nothing to worry about. But the ordinary citizens of Croatia, and indeed of every European country, certainly do have a great deal to worry about.

 

Respectfully yours,

  

Anthony J. Dawe

 

 

************(The end of the letter)************

 

 

A  LEAFLET distributed in the streets

of Zagreb by B. Soric  -  click here:

http://soric-b.tripod.com/stan/id4.html