To loud cheers, the lower house of the Russian parliament, the Duma, voted last month by a two-thirds majority (308 out of 450) to override President Yeltsin’s veto of the law nationalising the booty taken from Germany to the Soviet Union after World War II. This comprises some 200,000 works of art, two million books and three kilometres of archives and it has been the subject of a claim by Germany for years. The president had hoped to resolve the matter on his visit last month to Chancellor Kohl. The ball is now in the court of the upper house, with the constitutional court as the president’s last recourse.
The Duma had ignored the president’s argument that this law “emphasised a unilateral solution [to the problem] without taking into account the generally accepted rules of international law. Yeltsin warned that it “weakened the Russian position in the delicate ongoing negotiations with France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Poland, Hungary and the Netherlands”. He accused the deputies of making no distinction “between former enemies, allies and neutral countries, nor between different categories of private people so far as property rights are concerned”. According to the president, this law will make it difficult, if not impossible, to exhibit works of art outside Russia.
During the debate in the Duma, the Minister of Culture said that he was in favour of the works remaining on Russian soil, but only by negotiation with the countries concerned.
To become law, the bill now requires a qualified majority in the upper house, which it will almost certainly get since it was supported by 140 votes to thirty on its first reading at the beginning of March.
o Irina Antonova, the veteran director of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, which houses some of the most celebrated booty including the so-called Priam’s treasure found at Troy, is an unbending opponent to the idea of restitution. Although this is well known, she nonetheless astonished international museum directors at their March meeting in Rome by launching into a strongly worded, public attack on the Germans and their claims.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The Duma overrides Yeltsin'