The government of Bulgaria is considering paying the country's small and elderly Jewish population compensation to settle a decades-old dispute over the wartime confiscation of a Jewish facility in central Sofia, President Georgi Parvanov told a group of Washington Post editors and reporters last week.
"The case has gone through court and the decision was not in favor of the Jewish community," he said in an Oct. 18 interview. "I am not allowed to comment on the proceedings, but the Bulgarian government has been considering compensating the Jewish community in a different form. The only comment I can make is to refer to the possibility of payment, of compensation by executive branch institutions."
The dispute dates to World War II, when the Bulgarian government, an ally of Nazi Germany, seized Jewish land and property. After the war, many disputes over Jewish assets were settled in Bulgaria, but one in central Sofia was not. Things were further complicated with the building of the Rila Hotel on the site in the 1960s.
In 1992, the Supreme State Arbitration Court, the country's highest court, ruled that the local Jewish community agency in Bulgaria, Shalom, was the legal owner of about 49 percent of the hotel's property, according to the Washington law firm Covington & Burling. The firm represents Shalom and the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The state later sold the property to private investors, but it never paid Shalom. Now Bulgarian officials point to a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Cassation, the highest court for civil appeals, which found that the government was not legally liable to pay.
Today, the value of the 49 percent share, including rental income that has remained unpaid, amounts to somewhere between $10 million and $12 million, the law firm estimates.
Lawyers at the firm said Monday that President Parvanov's suggestion could work if it translates into concrete action. "That the Bulgarian government is now looking into some form of direct compensation is encouraging," John Rupp, a lawyer on the case, said in an e-mail.
"Shalom should not have had to plead with the courts for 14 years for enforcement of a decision by the highest court in Bulgaria that would have been enforced automatically in countless other countries," Rupp wrote.
Stuart E. Eizenstat, another member of firm, said by telephone Monday that the Rila fight had been "particularly troublesome" but that the settlement proposed by Parvanov "would be satisfactory."
He was flying to Brussels to meet Thursday with Bridgit Czarnota, the European Commission official in charge of Bulgaria's talks to enter the European Union, tentatively set to happen in 2007. He is urging the commission to use the talks to pressure Bulgaria to reach a settlement.
Jonathan Davidson of the European Commission delegation to the United States arranged the meeting at his request, Eizenstat said. Eizenstat was U.S. special envoy on Holocaust-era issues during the Clinton administration.
Whatever their differences on the Rila Hotel, Jewish representatives and Parvanov agree that Bulgaria distinguished itself by refusing Nazi orders to surrender its Jewish community for deportation during the war. "When the prime minister tried to hand them over, major protests by the church and others blocked the move," Eizenstat said.
In the interview, Parvanov called on the E.U. not to use internal problems as an excuse to delay Bulgarian entry. Earlier this year, French and Dutch voters rejected a proposed E.U. constitution, a sign that many felt the bloc was expanding too quickly. But Parvanov said that further enlargement would stimulate the democratic process in the region.
His Socialist Party, the descendant of the former Communist Party, came in first during elections last June. Parvanov argued that this was no sign that Bulgaria was trying to reclaim its past. "Success for my party is due to the votes of people under 40," he said. "This recent vote was not a nostalgia vote but a vote for change, a forward-looking vote."
If You Can't Beat It . . .
Al-Hurra TV, a network the U.S. government funds in hopes of improving public diplomacy in the Arab world, has retained an erstwhile critic, Robert Satloff, a director at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to host a talk show. The title: "Inside Washington."
Two years ago, Satloff wrote an op-ed piece criticizing the U.S. government for underwriting al-Hurra. Privately owned media are much better forums, he argued.
But after funding for the network passed through Congress, he said, he was talking to an al-Hurra official and remarked that it ought to have a program focused on the complexities of Washington decision-making. "The notion that the president just snaps his fingers and things happen" is false, he said.
"When I suggested this," he recalled, "I was told: 'You do it.' " He said that now that he's unable to block al-Hurra as a publicly funded entity, he wants to make it better.