Czech Foreign Ministry reacts to Liechtenstein lawsuit

Those of you listening yesterday will have heard the story of how the tiny state of Liechtenstein is taking Germany to the International Court of Justice over property seized after World War Two. The property includes large stretches of land in Czech territory, but why is Liechtenstein suing Germany and not the Czech Republic? Olga Szantova explains.

The reasons why are numerous, and include a 1998 dispute involving a Dutch oil painting which had been on display in Germany and which the Liechtenstein head of state, Prince Hans-Adam II, said belonged to his family. A German court, however, ruled that the painting should be returned to the Czech Republic, where it belonged. That seems to have triggered off the latest Liechtenstein reaction, and the country is turning to the International Court of Justice to reassert its sovereignty.

Liechtenstein has laid claim to numerous castles, works of art and huge areas of land on Czech territory. The nobility gained the property way back in the 17th century, when the Liechtensteins were one of the Catholic noble families who received property confiscated from Czech Protestants. In modern times the issue has been a constant bone of contention between the two countries, says the head of the Central European Department at the Foreign Ministry, Bedrich Kopecky.

"We don't see any new situation in Czech-Liechtenstein relations. We know that it is the usual approach of Liechtenstein to occasionally open this property question, the dispute with the Liechtenstein dynasty has a long history, already in the first Czechoslovak Republic - 1918 to 1938 - because of property which was touched during the first land reform."

That 1919 land reform meant the fledgling Czechoslovak state seized most of the land previously owned by the nobility and distributed it among farmers. After the Second World War the situation was somewhat different - only property belonging to Germans and to those who had collaborated with the Nazis was seized. And the Liechtensteins - who still owned huge amounts of property in Czechoslovakia - were among those affected, even though the state of Liechtenstein was neutral during the war.

"You see, we cannot speak about Liechtenstein as a neutral state because the property belonged to the Liechtensteins as physical persons."

And not only did the Liechtensteins living in Czechoslovakia declare themselves of German nationality in the last census before the war, there were also documents in the Czech archives to prove that they had collaborated with the Nazis, says Mr Kopecky. So what is the current relationship between the two countries? The Czech Republic and Liechtenstein do not even enjoy diplomatic relations.

"After the division of the Czechoslovak federation in 1993, all the diplomatic relations of the Czechoslovak federation were abolished. It is not possible to succeed to diplomatic relations. You can succeed to international agreements, not to diplomatic relations, and the Czech Republic, as a new subject of international law requested the recognition and the establishing of diplomatic relations with all the states of the world. And Liechtenstein responded that they are prepared to recognize the Czech Republic on reciprocal basis, but under condition of beginning negotiations about this property question."