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Romania: Parliament Extends Controversial Restitution Law

Romania's parliament today approved a three-month extension to a property restitution law that came into force earlier this year. The approval came despite opposition from ultranationalist lawmakers, who say the high number of claims from descendants of noble families -- including a lawsuit by Romania's former monarch, Michael -- will "endanger" Romania's national security. RFE/RL correspondent Eugen Tomiuc reports:

Prague, 29 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Romania's lower house of parliament today extended by three months the deadline for submitting property restitution claims, after the Senate approved the extension earlier this week.

A restitution law adopted earlier this year (January) provided for claims to be submitted no later than 15 August, but Romania's government -- faced with a record number of high-profile claims -- decided to ask parliament for an extension of the deadline.

The government's decision came as Romanians who reside abroad complained they were unaware of the restitution law or had not had enough time to prepare their claims.

But it was an especially high-profile claim earlier this month (7 August) by King Michael -- Romania's former monarch -- for the return of a 19th-century castle that triggered a wave of property restitution demands.

King Michael is seeking the return of properties in the southern Carpathians, including Peles Castle, a former summer residence that was seized by communists after Michael's forced abdication in 1947.

But Peles -- a beautiful castle dating from the 1870s -- is also the most popular museum in Romania, and some officials in the Social Democratic government have said the castle may not be returned.

Peles was built by Romania's first king, Charles I of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, and had already been partially turned into a museum during his rule. Communists kept parts of the Peles museum open until the early 1970s, when late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu closed the museum and turned the palace into a personal residence.

The museum was reopened for the public after the 1989 popular revolt that toppled Ceausescu's regime.

Michael's attempt to regain his castle sparked criticism from ultranationalist politicians, members of the governing Social Democratic Party and some journalists. Several newspapers have launched a media campaign against Michael's claims, accusing him of greed and what they call a "lack of patriotism."

But the former monarch's lawyer, Adrian Vasiliu, tells RFE/RL that Michael wants to leave the castle under the state's administration provided that the government gives him moral reparation and officially recognizes him as the rightful owner.

"The king never intended to use the castle for himself, but to leave it perpetually in the administration of the Romanian government, with all the results -- which include collecting the income generated by the [Peles] museum. But morally, there is a basic condition which the King cannot renounce: the government must officially and legally recognize that the [Peles] domain, including the castle, have been and are his majesty's rightful properties."

The government earlier this year mended its relationship with Michael after a decade of animosity. President Ion Iliescu in May formally invited the king to visit Romania and subsequently met with him in Bucharest.

Vasiliu says Michael's relations with both Iliescu and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase are as good as ever, despite the irritation shown by some government officials toward the former monarch's claims:

"There are cordial relations, I should say, between the king and President Ion Iliescu, and between the king and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase. These two important political figures have never made any personal statements regarding the royal claims."

Professor Alexandru Zub, a renowned historian specializing in Romanian history, says the government's reconciliation with the king was meant more to improve its image abroad than because of a genuine interest in solving the restitution problem.

Zub says, though, that the royal claims are in accordance with the restitution law.

"I would like to stress, first of all, the king's right to repossess his properties, and secondly, the need to avoid treating these things as being something other than what they are -- an issue to be settled according to the existing law."

A spate of other high-profile claims followed the former king's demand. Two weeks ago, the descendants of Michael's aunt, Princess Ileana, demanded the return of Bran Castle -- a 13th-century fortress built by Teutonic knights in southern Transylvania and known as "Dracula's Castle."

Among the more unusual claims is that of Gheorghe Popescu, an 80-year-old Romanian who is asking for the return of a 14th-century Transylvanian castle that used to belong to the Hungarian noble family of the Corvins. Popescu, who says he has documents to prove he is a Corvin himself, also wants the noble family's estate, which during the Middle Ages consisted of a huge chunk of central Transylvania.

Other demands come either from descendants of noble Romanian landowners who want their manors back or from the heirs of prewar industrialists.

The unexpected number of requests caught the authorities by surprise, prompting one government official to say that if "one-third of the country" is to be claimed, the parliament may have to intervene.

Newspapers conducted opinion polls to show the lack of public support for the royal claims, while the ultranationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM) -- which holds a fourth of the seats in parliament -- demanded this week that the restitution law become the subject of a national referendum.

The PRM also demanded that Romania's Intelligence Service (SRI) come up with a report assessing the impact of the restitution law on the country's national security, and PRM leader Corneliu Vadim Tudor said the restitution law must be destroyed "before it destroys us."

The government has not yet given a response to the former king's claims. Government spokesman Claudiu Lucaci says authorities have begun assessing the royal claims based on documents and on the restitution law.

Lucaci told our correspondent that the government agreed in principle to conduct negotiations with Michael. But he said talks will take place only after officials complete their analysis of the case.

"It was the former monarch who proposed negotiations, and the government agreed. But it remains to be seen when these negotiations will effectively begin, since we first have to complete the analysis of the case."

Adrian Vasiliu, the king's lawyer, says Michael might appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. But he says the former king would like to avoid taking that step.

Meanwhile, many former owners of small properties who are now engaged in legal battles in courts are awaiting the outcome. They know their own claims might well depend on whether the restitution law will be properly applied to this much-publicized case.