Residents who were expropriated under communism in the Shkodra region say they are now among the poorest in society and demand compensation. Despite being officially compensated with 1 hectare of land in the mid-1990s, in most cases they haven’t received any compensation due to illegal settlers and construction and lack of rule of law to free the land up.
By VIRTYT OMARI*
Thousands of Albanians who were expropriated under communism have for two decades lobbied the state to return their property or at least compensate them, but they have failed in their efforts for years, despite promises by consecutive post-communist governments that they will solve the issue of property rights, as guaranteed under the country’s constitution.
In addition, the expropriated say new legislation and government decisions have ran counter not only to their rights as expropriated property owners, but also have led to land and property being granted to those who have illegally occupied it.
Representatives of Property with Justice, an association that lobbies for the rights of the expropriated, says that in proportional population terms the city of Shkodra in northwestern Albania has the largest number of people whose property was taken away by the communist state. About 85 percent of Shkodra’s population owned land and real estate before the communist regime took over in 1945, much of it used to generate income.
However, in a huge reversal of fortunes, expropriation and nationalization of property under communism and then redistribution in the first years of democracy has left former property owners in Shkodra among the poorest people in society.
“Real estate and land are an eternal resource that cannot be compensated with symbolic gestures [in democracy] like it’s still communism,” the association’s head, Ahmet Osja, says in an interview.
Despite being officially compensated with 1 hectare of land in the mid-1990s, in most cases they haven’t received any compensation due to illegal settlers and construction and lack of rule of law to free the land up.
Meanwhile, their 20-year efforts to get their property rights recognized has further depleted their resources due to costs associated with proper documentation, maps and endless court hearings. Property with Justice representatives say that years of suffering under communism were only made worse by lengthy fight for property restitution and compensation.
Initially, the expropriated say they thought that with the return of democracy, the property would go back to those from whom it was taken, but these Shkodra residents were again left without their property.
Representatives of the community say that the governments’ attempts to return 200 square meters as compensation with values far below market value and compensation in installments for occupied property from illegal settlers makes a mockery of essential property rights. They say these actions are only to put a veneer of legitimacy on expropriation to show the EU the governments are trying to be fair, as Albania hopes to join the bloc one day.
Osja, the head of Property with Justice in Shkodra, says that the official Property Restitution and Compensation Agency in Tirana (PRCA) has illegally given land in tourist areas that have offset only some of the claims submitted with the city hall in Shkodra.
“PRCA Tirana has brought a series of problems, such as the type of documents they provide, since it doesn’t recognize old deeds issued by the Albanian state, seeking instead cadastral documents, mortgage papers, plans, etc, all done with unjustified delays and irresponsible employees,” Osja says.
He explains that the cost of issuing these documents is too high for the empty pockets of the expropriated, who were persecuted under communism and are still broke under the democratic system.
“Those who have managed to get back their property or compensation have done so through individual merit, not through the support of rule of law,” says Osja. “Ignoring the law and arbitrary actions have been the main features of the behavior of successive governments with former property owners.”
In Shkodra, the expropriated community has not only failed to get monetary compensation, but also physical compensation with land elsewhere.
Authorities were supposed to compensate former property owners at a free area of 40 hectares in Velipoja, a coastal area. It was meant to bring development and foreign investment in tourism to the area. But, according Osja, politicians and government officials failed to deliver because it went against their interests.
“So, by their actions and inactions, they prevented attracting international capital, and allowed the area in question to be stolen and broken into hundreds if not thousands of parcels, while failing to deliver on a huge burden for the state — property compensation,” he adds.
The association has urged the Albanian government to make appropriate corrections to the legalization law in order for compensation for the original owners to be made within three months from the date of publication in the Official Journal of the relevant decisions of the government in order to avoid lengthy delays in payments.
Another concern of those expropriated relates to the amount of money being placed in the compensation fund through the legalization of the property of what the expropriated call “land occupiers” or the people who settled and built on property that was not their own in the early days of the democratic state.
“Violators of the law and occupiers of land must pay market prices rather than the ridiculous [low] figures set [by the government]. There is no reason for the Albanian state and the Albanian taxpayer to pick up the tab for the land occupiers,” Osja says.
The expropriated Albanians’ have also asked through their association that that officials at offices of property registration provide maps of 1938, 1941, 1950 and 1962 as well as simplify documentation requirements for property owners.
Meanwhile, the financial bill that the Albanian government owes in compensation to the expropriated continues to grow after several Albanian families have won cases at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg against the Albanian state.
A deadly problem: About 8,000 killed in property disputes
A lack of clear law-based solution to property disputes has led to personal conflict between people claiming the same property.
In the past 20 years since the fall of communism, official data show that 8,000 have been killed in property disputes, mainly caused by the passage of Law No. 7501 in 1991 shortly after the establishment of a pluralistic democratic system. The law was built on the principle that “the land belongs to those who work on it,” effectively expropriating old owners of most rights.
The Shkodra region was among the ones that was most hit by the new law given the fact that most of its residents would have profited more from returning to the old property rights.
World Bank: An ongoing challenge
The issue of disputes in terms of property rights is seen as a key problem by international bodies that look into Albania’s economy. World Bank, for example, considers it an ongoing challenge.
“Despite several efforts to reform, property rights in Albania, they are not sufficiently safe and pose a significant challenge to the government,” notes a recent World Bank report.
Problems have arisen from the incomplete registration of property borders, the lack of accurate cadastral cards and, in many cases, and the lack of reliable information on the ownership. Although Albania has adopted a law that requires restitution or compensation of former owners whose properties were expropriated during the communist regime, its application remains incomplete, the report adds.
Informal occupation of land and illegal buildings seem to have originated in rapid internal migration during the 1990s, when a third of the population in some rural counties, mainly the northern and mountainous areas migrate to urban and coastal areas in search of better opportunities to earn income, despite the lack of infrastructure adequate housing or public services delivery.
The 1991 law seen as root of the problem
The widely argued Law No. 7501 on land, which was approved in 1991, has set the property right legal framework for the return of property has had a huge impact. This law allowed the privatization of real estate to people who are former owners of the period before 1944 farmland separating the working people.
“State authorities have failed mainly to prevent illegal occupation of land and illegal construction, and it is estimated that up to a third of all buildings in Albania are illegal due to the lack of a clear property title and, or a building permit in possession of the people that occupy them,” notes the World Bank report .
It is estimated that in the early 1990s across the country there were 350,000 to 400,000 buildings constructed, which make up a third of total inventory in the country and have cost about 10 billion euros.
*Vyrtyt Omari is a journalist participating in the Human Rights Reporting Project of the Tirana Centre for Journalistic Excellence (TCJE.org). This article is published as part of the training and reporting project. For more information: http://tcje.org/en/projects/human-rights-reporting/