A community seeks restitution

Five years ago, I sat in the lobby of the Kempinski Hotel in Sofia with Vladimir Philipov, foreign affairs secretary to then-president Petar Stoyanov.

Five years ago, I sat in the lobby of the Kempinski Hotel in Sofia with Vladimir Philipov, foreign affairs secretary to then-president Petar Stoyanov. Philipov calmly acknowledged that corruption was at the heart of the Bulgarian Jewish community's inability to recover a prized property. On that afternoon, it already had been eight years since the community, known as Shalom, first won a court ruling for its significant share of the Rila Hotel in the heart of Sofia. The three-star hotel is best known for its popular 24-hour casino, which happens to sit on Jewish land that was confiscated by the Bulgarian government during the Nazi era and subsequently expropriated by the post-war communist regime. Philipov was a high-ranking government official, but he was no prophet. He predicted, wrongly, that there would be a "solution" for Shalom by the end of that summer. "We should abide by the decisions of our own courts," he told The Jerusalem Post. "And we should not risk our relationship with Israel and the Jewish communities in the world because of one or two properties." Business and law collide with corruption in the Balkans. Discussions about law, like the one at the Kempinski Hotel and those with Western diplomats, run in tandem with another conversation, one of gestures winks, nods and palms outstretched for payola. The result is that Shalom, relying on legal and moral arguments, has not been able to collect several million dollars in income from its share of the Rila. In 1992, when Shalom won its first court ruling, Bulgaria was being hailed as the first nation in Eastern Europe to enact a post-communist property restitution law. But the Bulgarian government apparently has no respect for its laws or its judicial process. The government never enforced the 1992 ruling by Bulgaria's Supreme Court of Arbitration that Shalom is the legal owner of 48.87 percent of the Rila property. In fact, it ignored it. In 1998, despite the cloud on the property's title, the government allowed the hotel to be privatized. The buyer of the majority stake was a local association whose income was widely acknowledged to come from corrupt, but unidentified, sources. The government's attitude was that Shalom's interests were not harmed by the sale because it still owned its stake in the property. BULGARIA TRADITIONALLY is keen to talk about its efforts to aid the Jewish community. King Boris III is honored in many quarters for rescuing 50,000 Bulgarian Jews during World War II, even though the king, an ally of Nazi Germany who promulgated anti-Semitic laws, permitted the 1943 deportation of more than 11,000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia to Treblinka. Further, Bulgaria's glorified war-era history was undermined last year when Germany agreed that Bulgaria forced large segments of the male Jewish population into slave labor, and thus the surviving Jews were entitled to compensation for persecution. But for those who insist that Bulgaria saved its Jews, the question is whether the country saved them merely to cheat the surviving remnant. The Rila claim has gone back and forth in various Bulgarian courts, rather like a case of court-shopping by Shalom's opponents for a decision that would either mask the government's lack of enforcement, or cast a veneer of legality on dubious practices. In the most recent decision, in July, the Bulgarian Supreme Court of Cassation failed to require the immediate enforcement of Shalom's share of the Rila. Shalom has appealed that ruling, arguing that it conflicts with previous decisions of the Supreme Court of Cassation and of the Bulgarian Supreme State Arbitration Court. Given the government's failures to enforce its laws and protect Shalom's interests, the Rila case must be especially alarming for Bulgaria's aspirations to join the European Union. Membership in that club would demand a fair and functional judicial system. Instead, the evidence is that the rule of law is meaningless. Shalom, which is seeking a final and enforceable ruling for the return of its share, is running out of options and time. In August, the Greek company Daskalantonakis Group, which owns Grecotel, agreed to provide Euro 27 million to upgrade the hotel, the Rila director told news agencies. One wonders why Daskalantonakis's shareholders would risk such a substantial amount in a state that shows such contempt for property law. But if it is willing to proceed with such an investment, Daskalantonakis should come to Sofia with two checks: one for 48.87% made out to the long-suffering Jewish community, Shalom. The writer, who specializes in Nazi-era confiscations and the restitution of Jewish properties, reported for The Jerusalem Post from 1993-2000.