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Russia: Parliament Rejects Yeltsin's Veto Of Trophy Art Law

By Jan Cleave

Prague, 16 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Recent reports in the German media that a fragment of a mosaic from the legendary Amber Room has been found in Germany draw again attention to the dispute between President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament over return of World War II trophy art.

Overwhelmingly rejecting a presidential veto, the Federation Council (parliament's upper chamber) confirmed two days ago the law declaring cultural valuables seized by Soviet troops from Germany at the end of World War II to be Russian property and "just compensation" for the losses and injustices inflicted by the Nazis. Yeltsin's veto had earlier been overturned by the State Duma (parliament's lower chamber).

Yeltsin has claimed that the trophy art law conflicts with agreements that Germany and Russia reached in 1990 and 1992 on negotiating the return of looted artworks held by both sides. He also has said that the law contravenes both the constitution and international legislation. He will now appeal to the Constitutional Court to quash the controversial bill.

An initial version of the bill was passed by the Duma at its very first session following Yeltsin's re-election as president last summer. Negotiations between post-Soviet Russia and unified Germany on the return of the artworks had deadlocked, and the communist-dominated Duma seemed intent on forcing the hand of the newly re-elected president, who had frequently resorted to nationalist rhetoric during his election campaign.

But the Duma's bid was foiled by the Federation Council, which rejected the bill. By the time the Duma passed a mildly revised form of the law, gubernatorial elections had increased the independence of the Council. The legislation was approved by the upper house in March and then swiftly vetoed by Yeltsin.

Last month, the Federation Council spared Yeltsin another potential embarrassment -- this time abroad and on German soil, to boot. On the eve of the 17 April meeting between the president and Chancellor Helmut Kohl in Baden-Baden, the upper house opted for a postal ballot on whether to override the presidential veto, thereby postponing a final decision for several weeks. Yeltsin departed for Germany secure in the knowledge that German newspapers the next morning would not run angry headlines about Russia's laying claim to the disputed treasures.

The official results of the mail vote were released on the same day that Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana agreed on a Russian-NATO "founding act." Consequently, international media focused on post-Cold War detente rather than on Russian squabbling over war booty. And later that day, reports said that a fragment of the mosaic from the Amber Room -- dismantled and hauled away from Tsarskoye Selo by the Nazis during World War II -- had been found in Bremen, northern Germany.

In opposing the trophy art law, Yeltsin has repeatedly raised legal objections echoing those of Germany. His opposition might have also been strengthened by the fact that Germany is Russia's largest lender and perceived by many as its closest ally in the West.

When Yeltsin vetoed the law in mid-March, he argued that the unilateral declaration of the trophy art as Russian property breached international legislation, a position frequently stressed by German officials (who also point to the provision for the return of all war booty in the 1992 friendship treaty between Moscow and Bonn).

Yeltsin also stressed the law's potential negative impact on relations not only with Germany but also with countries such as Holland and Italy, which claim some of the trophy art was removed from their territory before the Soviets carted it off to Moscow. And, in an apparent bid to somewhat appease the nationalists -- without unduly upsetting the Germans -- the Russian president noted that the law would hinder efforts to retrieve artworks seized from the Soviet Union during the war.

But legal arguments and warnings about foreign-policy blunders have had little impact in the face of nationalist outpourings in the parliament.

The law's proponents have struck a chord among Russians by frequently reminding them of the 27 million Soviet citizens claimed to have perished in the Great Patriotic War. They say that the 200,000 works of art, 2 million books, and 3 kilometers of archival material that Germany wants returned are minimal compensation for Russian loss of life and the widespread destruction of artworks and monuments. Museum curators in Moscow and St. Petersburg have reinforced this emotive pressure by organizing exhibitions of trophy art with such seemingly benign titles as "Twice Saved" (once from the Nazis and then from Soviet neglect).

Yeltsin's representative at the Constitutional Court has said that the president will appeal to the court to reject the law. The same day the Federation Council overruled his veto, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted the constitutional provision stating that in cases where international law and Russian federal law are at odds, international law will be applied.

If Yeltsin wins on this point, he will have gained time before the parliament makes another legislative bid to secure ownership of the trophy art. He is likely to use that time to seek a solution with Germany that, in his and Kohl's words, "is fair to each side."