Real Property Lawyers Promote Reform in Central Europe

By Molly Stephenson

As emerging Eastern European democracies address the controversial issues of land and property privatization, they have drawn on the expertise of thousands of American legal professionals. These volunteers, many from the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section, have donated days, weeks and even years to help bring the rule of law to Eastern Europe through the ABA Cen- tral and East European Law Initiative (CEELI).

CEELI, a public service project of the ABA, supports legal reform in over 20 countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. CEELI's work in areas of real property primarily falls within the Legal Assessments Program. At the request of the host country, U.S. and Western European legal specialists critique draft legislation from the region. The specialists raise issues that legislative drafters may not have considered and provide a spectrum of options from which the drafters can select the approach most appropriate for their country's needs.

To date, CEELI has completed the following real property related legal assessments:

  • draft law on land use for Albania
  • draft law regarding ownership of certain expropriated land and buildings for Romania
  • draft law regarding the gen-eral cadastre and public register of fixed properties for Romania
  • draft federal law on state reg-istration of rights in real property and transactions involving real property for the Russian Federation
  • bill concerning the ownership and use of agricultural lands for Bulgaria
  • draft law on urban and regional planning for Romania
  • draft law on expropriation of property for the public utility for Romania; and
  • draft federal law on mort-gages for the Russian Federation.
One volunteer is Mary Hoffman of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who commented on the Russian Federation draft law on mortgages. She found the experience extremely rewarding, especially the opportu-nity to "step back from the U.S. system and analyze how law and business have evolved together in this country." Ms. Hoffman was impressed by the Russian legislative drafters' attempt to address the "daunting task of property financing without an established commerce infrastructure in place." The legal assessment, she believed, was especially useful because it addressed the practical implications and implementation issues of mortgage regulation. This type of CEELI participation highlights the massive economic difference an effective property finance system could have on the Russian economy.

CEELI has also organized interactive training workshops on issues of real property reform. Mary Chaffin of Portland, Oregon leads such a program in Belarus. While abroad, Ms. Chaffin was asked to describe U.S. real estate law briefly and then address questions on issues from government regulations to land leasing law. Despite the lack of reform in Belarus, she found the "lawyers surprisingly familiar with the issues." Ms. Chaffin also discovered while in Belarus that the first step in land privatization is to "determine which arm of government [local, state or federal] claimed rights to the property." It was also quite typical for "buildings to transfer owners, while the land underneath remained the property of the state." She feels that efforts to assist a country with a blank slate in establishing an effective property registration system are personally most rewarding.

In 1993, Daniel Singer served for four months as a CEELI legal specialist in Poznan, Poland. His task was to develop a state farm property privatization program in cooperation with the Polish Agency for State-Owned Agricultural Lands. At the time, Poznan was blessed with a low unemployment rate (less than 5%). To meet the housing needs of laborers and professionals from other regions with higher unemploy- ment rates (more than 20%), such as Krakow, Mr. Singer initiated a pilot program to develop the farm land with new housing. Architects and builders were organized and a financing scheme, backed by $500 million from the World Bank, was established.

All of CEELI's reform efforts are implemented by volunteers. In lieu of a salary, each liaison and legal specialist receives a benefits package that finances international airfare, in-country business travel and a living/housing allowance. Since 1990, more than 3,000 volunteers have participated in CEELI programs. Section members can par- ticipate in the following ways:

  • Resident liaisons form the foundation of the CEELI project by serving for at least one year and identifying, developing and implementing legal assistance projects in partnership with the host country's legal community and government representatives.
  • Legal specialists work in the host country for six weeks to six months on issues including land use regulation and mortgage reform.
  • Workshop participants share their legal expertise for two to six weeks through interactive training sessions on a plethora of legal topics.
  • From the United States, volunteers assist CEELI's Legal Assessments Department by providing a written analysis of draft legislation from the region. These reports help countries develop laws in accordance with democratic and free market principles. To date, CEELI has completed more than 255 assessments of draft legislation.
To take advantage of this great opportunity to "export" skills and broaden experience, please contact CEELI by phone at (800) 98CEELI or (202) 662-1754, fax: 202-662-1597, e-mail:

Molly Stephenson is the Outreach Coordinator for ABA-CEELI, 740 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20005.


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