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Tuesday, July 20, 1999 Published at 13:25 GMT 14:25 UK

World: Europe

Russia rules on war booty

Trojan treasure: Looted as compensation

Russia has partially overturned a law banning the return of works of art seized by the Soviet army at the end of the World War II.

The Constitutional Court ruled that countries and individuals, which had been the victims of Nazi Germany, had the right to ask for restitution of works of art.

But "aggressor countries" - a reference to Germany - did not have the right to receive their works back, the court decided.

"Aggressor countries cannot claim the restitution of cultural valuables received by Russia as compensation for damage inflicted on the country," the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS cited the ruling as saying.

Correspondents say the ruling is a victory for President Yeltsin, who has fought a long battle with parliament over the law.

The Moscow court had to decide whether the law covering Soviet war booty was constitutional, after it was challenged by Mr Yeltsin.

An 'unconstitutional' law

The president argued that the law was unconstitutional on the grounds that it conflicted with Russia's obligations under international law.

[ image: President Yeltsin: Appealed against the law]
President Yeltsin: Appealed against the law
In April 1998, the Constitutional Court had forced President Yeltsin to sign the law after both houses of the Russian parliament had overturned his presidential veto.

The law declared Soviet World War II booty to be Russian national property.

The court ruling establishes two groups of countries looted by the Soviet Army - the victims and allies, and the aggressors.

Countries that fought Germany or were victims of its aggression in World War II "have the right to request the restitution of cultural valuables," the ITAR-TASS report says.

The Russian parliament's view has been that war booty is compensation for the devastation caused by the German army in the Soviet Union.

Millions of Russians were killed and entire villages were burned to the ground during the war.

Long-hidden treasures

The list of Soviet war booty includes more than 300,000 works of art, two million books and archive documents looted at the end of the war.

There is also 260 pieces of Trojan gold, discovered by German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, impressionist paintings by Manet, Renoir and Matisse and a rare Gutenberg Bible.

For most of the past 50 years the Soviet Government denied the valuable booty existed, keeping it hidden in basements.

Some pieces have been steadily deteriorating, and the Russian authorities do not have the resources to restore it all immediately.

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