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24 September, 2012  ▪  Erkki Bahovski

Estonian Property Reform: The Wheel of History

Property reform is one of the most controversial issues haunting Estonia today. The restitution of property grew out of the need to return the property to those who lost it during Soviet nationalisation and collectivisation.

The law on restoration was passed before Estonia re-gained its independence – in June 1991 (re-independence was declared again on 20 August 1991). As one can see, the suffix ‘re’ plays an important role here. Namely, anyone whose ancestors had owned property before 17 June 1940 (the date when Soviet forces entered Estonia) could reclaim his property. This enabled tens of thousands of people to take back their property be it land or a house.

Still, the process was not easy. First, one had to have proof of ownership of the property before 17 June 1940. For example, our family was lucky – in our village the documents proving the ownership of our lands were fully preserved in an archive. Other families’ documents had been either fully or partially destroyed.

Second, on most occasions the reclamation of property also meant a new split. Generally, those who owned property before 17 June 1940 had died by 1991 and thus the relatives had to share the property. This in turn created a new wave of court cases where the relatives attempted to distribute the property between themselves. In many cases, the reclaimed buildings stayed empty for many years because one of the relatives was living in exile and the court could not move on with the reclamation process.

Perhaps the biggest problem occurred with so-called forced tenants — people renting flats in a house which was then reclaimed by an owner. These were not Soviet era houses where many people were able to privatise their flats, but houses built before 17 June 1940 which were then owned by someone else and where people were renting flats in good faith. Now these renters discovered that they were living on someone else's property. The other side of the coin is that some of those houses were forcibly taken by the Soviet Army in 1940 and the owners had been either imprisoned or forced to leave the country.

And all in all, it must be remembered that the Estonia of 1991 was no longer the Estonia of 1940. Many buildings had been destroyed in the course of the Second World War or during Soviet rule. Many houses had been rebuilt. The same happened to land – some land had been redistributed to collective farms, some had undergone soil improvement, on some of it (like my family’s) trees had been planted.

This necessitated a process of compensation. On the national level, the Estonian state paid for the damages and restructuring caused by the Soviet and German occupations. Germany paid compensation, too – to people who had been taken to labour camps. It should be stressed that Estonia has never officially demanded compensation from Russia which considers itself the legal heir to the Soviet Union. Also, forced tenants were offered compensation, but still many of them remained dissatisfied, since they were forced to find a new house and the paperwork involved was exhausting. Furthermore, every move had political consequences as well, since those dissatisfied usually voted for the opposition.

Critics have said property reform was the most unjust policy to be carried out in Estonia since re-independence. Many people lost their homes, many owners did nothing with the new property and many family quarrels broke out because siblings were unable to share the reclaimed property.

It is natural to ask whether justice was served, but the additional question is — what was the alternative? Doing nothing with the property would have legalized the Soviet and German occupations and injustice with regard to those who lost their homes and land to nationalisation and collectivisation.

Consequently, the main issue is how property reform was carried out. Even though it created significant resentment, most people felt that the Estonian state did try to compensate for losses they suffered during both occupations. The wheel of history cannot be turned back, but the state can mitigate the injustice caused by other states. This is what Estonia accomplished.

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