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Russian Parliament, Yeltsin clash over fate of seized art

MOSCOW, March 23 (JTA) — Members of Russia’s lower house have said they would continue to push for a law banning the return of art that the Red Army seized from Nazi Germany during World War II. Last week, President Boris Yeltsin vetoed legislation that would have made all works of art brought to the Soviet Union during the war Russian property. The Russian Parliament had overwhelmingly backed the measure, but it needed the president’s signature. The sensitive issue of restitution of works of art taken by the Soviet army has been a subject of negotiations between Moscow and Germany. In 1990, Germany and the Soviet Union signed a friendship treaty providing for the mutual restitution of war plunder. A spokesman for the German Embassy in Moscow was quoted as saying that Russia’s stand on the seized art was a “thorn in the side” of otherwise good Russian-German relations. Yeltsin, in a letter to the chairman of Parliament’s upper house, said the proposed bill sought to solve the problem of “trophy art” unilaterally “without taking into account international norms of law.” The vetoed bill would have created a complicated procedure for the return of seized art treasures. It also said cultural artifacts that were family souvenirs or archives, including letters and photographs, could be returned to those who had inherited them “for humanitarian reasons.” Said the deputy chairman of the Communist-dominated culture committee of the lower house, who was the bill’s main author: “The law may be redrafted to create a distinction between art from our [wartime] allies and that confiscated from our enemies.” The Parliament could override the veto if both houses approve the bill again by a two-thirds majority. Among other reasons, the issue is of importance to the Jewish community because during the World War II era, many Jews lost precious works of art.

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