Wilanow, Poland’s grandest palace and the childhood home of Anna Wolska, who is seeking compensation from the state

Anna Wolska, a dowager of 83, hardly looks like a potential threat to Poland’s government finances. But she is.

That is because she is an heir to one the country’s pre-war aristocratic families, people who had their property confiscated without compensation by the communists after the war and are now trying to get either the property back or at least some kind of restitution.

Poland is the only post-communist European Union member not to have resolved the issue of communist-era nationalisations. There have been about 20 failed attempts to deal with the issue since 1989, and now the government of Donald Tusk, the country’s prime minister, is promising to pass a law this year bringing the process to a close.

The stakes for Poland are enormous, both to government finances and to the country’s relations with allies such as the US and Israel. Miroslaw Szypowski, head of the Polish Union of Property Owners, one of the largest groups seeking compensation, estimates that as many as 200,000 people have potential claims against the government. They come to as much as 80bn zlotys ($38bn, €24bn, £19bn) – about a quarter of the central government’s annual spending.

Mrs Wolska’s childhood home is Wilanow, Poland’s grandest palace, the home of several kings and, following the war and the imposition of communist rule, a national museum. Her family has been fighting, so far without success, for the return of land around the palace – now enormously valuable – and of property from inside the palace such as paintings and furniture.

“They should give back what can be given back,” says Mrs Wolska, surveying two ancestral portraits at the manor house 70km south of Warsaw where she spends her summers.

On a recent visit to Israel, Mr Tusk said there would be restitution, but he stressed any reimbursement “would be a not very high percentage of what was lost and paid out over many years”.

Successive governments have failed to resolve the issue because it is politically fraught, and many Poles are not in favour of paying out vast sums to the grandchildren of Poland’s prewar elite. One law passed parliament in 2001 but was vetoed by Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president.

In any compensation scheme, the largest individual beneficiaries would be people like Mrs Wolska, heirs of land-owning families whose property was nationalised or outright stolen by the communists.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the conservative opposition Law and Justice party, recently denounced compensation as a giveaway “that the heirs of the poorest Poles would have to pay the heirs of wealthy Poles”, and called for a referendum on the question.

His argument is that everyone was harmed by communism by being forced to spend their working lives in a ridiculous economic system, and that it is unfair for a select few to have an advantage because of their ancestry. A recent opinion poll showed that only a third of Poles favoured returning confiscated property.

About a fifth of claims come from the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who can prove family ties to pre-war property owners.

Mr Tusk has stressed that any compensation would be paid only to people who can make individual claims as the descendants of Polish citizens and would not be based on ethnic origin. That means there will be no negotiations with the Jewish community at large, where some groups would like to hold bilateral talks with the government.

Any attempt to repay former owners – dubbed reprivatisation – touches on delicate relations with neighbouring Germany. Citizens who come from territories belonging to Germany before the war which are now part of Poland would be unable to file claims.

The problem for the Polish government is that inaction carries a cost. About a fifth of the 2.5m hectares of farmland owned by the state cannot be sold because of claims filed by previous owners. Warsaw’s property market is also dogged by claims. Finally, there is the looming danger that either a Polish court or the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg could issue a ruling demanding compensation, threatening Poland’s public finances.

“The danger continues to hang over us,” admits Aleksander Grad, Poland’s treasury minister.

Mr Grad’s ministry is working out the parameters of a reprivatisation bill, to be presented by the end of the summer, covering expropriations done from 1944 to 1962.

Early indications are that the bill will be far less generous than claimants are hoping. One ministry official says that there is little chance of people getting any of their original property back, with the most likely option being that over a period of at least 15 years, they would be paid out a percentage of the value of what was taken.

“We want to have a bill that is safe for public finances,” says Mr Grad.

Although the final outline of the package is still unclear, claimants are already reacting with dismay. “This is unacceptable because most of the property could be returned. If there is any compensation, it should be paid out immediately and not over many years,” says Mr Szypowski.

Kazimierz Moes, head of the Polish Landowners’ Association, warns that if the package is not generous enough, his members will continue to fight in Polish and European courts.

“There is an unwillingness to deal with this, and I’m afraid that that the government will take a lot longer than it is promising,” says Mrs Wolska, recalling how she was deported to Moscow after the war with her family and other aristocrats, spending three years under house arrest. “Real harm was done to us. Maybe they don’t have to give back everything but they should at least give back something.”

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