Girolamo Giormani - fighting for the rights of Czech property owners

Girolamo Giormani

In this week's One on One, Rob Cameron speaks to Italian property owner Girolamo Giormani, who owns half a dozen apartment buildings in Prague's elegant Vinohrady district. Events have conspired to turn Mr Giormani into a crusader for the rights of Czech landlords - fighting the system of state-controlled rent that they say is leading them towards financial ruin. Over a plate of pasta at an Italian restaurant in the ground floor of one of his buildings, Girolamo Giormani put forward his case. He began by explaining how he came to speak fluent, accent-less Czech.

"Well, it was in 1956, when I was six years old. My father was here in the diplomatic service of the Italian Republic. Learning Czech was very easy for a child. You know it's no problem for a child - in a few days you already have an accent and everything."

So you learned Czech very quickly then?

"Absolutely, yes, it was no problem."

And do you have happy memories of childhood, here in Prague as an Italian boy?

"Well I remember that my dad forced me to play violin. I met my first Czech friend that way. He was roughly the same age, and he was crying too because we both hated violin. You know when families decide you have to do music, with force practically! Sometimes I got a few kicks!"

But music of course is not the way you make your money. You own several properties here in the Czech Republic. When did you first buy property here?

"Well it was in 1990. First of all I have to say that I married here. I married here in 1970 and I married a Czech girl. I took her to Italy. We spent some years in England, and spent most of our life in Western Europe. Then this chance happened to come back here. Of course my wife was born as a Czech citizen, and she was still nostalgic for her country. Me too, because I love this country, and I saw possibilities because the prices were really down at that time. It was easy to buy a big building, a house, similar to one on Regent Street in London for example, for half a million dollars, which is a really, really low price."

That was then back in 1990. How much property do you own in Prague now?

"Well I bought six big houses and three stores."

Now of course buying that property has brought you wealth and success but also problems because you have become embroiled in this dispute between people who own property in this country and the Czech state. Because many of the people who live in these buildings are used to paying very, very low rent from the times of Communism and you found yourself right in the middle of this dispute.

"Obviously it's normal if in these building there are - I think in English you call them sitting tenants. The rent is low but after five years I was thinking - well the wind is changing in the Czech Republic, freedom has come. It's a question of just a few years, and they'll understand it has to be changed. But fifteen years later nothing has changed, and I am forced to practically donate these houses."

At the heart of the matter though is a very, very political dispute isn't it? Because, basically, what we are talking about are people who, in theory, shouldn't be able to afford to live in a turn-of-the-century apartment block in Vinohrady, but because of this country's history they do. If their families have been here for decades, they do have the right to stay here surely?

"What rights? They are tenants. The owner has the right to decide what to do with his private ownership. I never heard that some tenants have rights to take it for years and years. You see, they have already taken advantage to pay nothing for sixty years, and I really don't know any of my tenants who don't have a country house! All these people have country houses! Sometimes they live a better life than me, believe me!"

But surely, what's at stake here is that it's not possible to go from a Communist totalitarian system where the state dictated how much you pay in rent, to a free market system overnight. If you did go to that system overnight, all these people in these apartments around us would be homeless, would be living on the streets.

"It's not true. Can you imagine, I don't know, in Marble Arch people lived as sitting tenants? That's crazy! In the Czech Republic, there are many flats - more flats per citizen than Vienna! They own three or four flats and rent them to tourists! The government knows about this situation but many parliamentary deputies are themselves sitting tenants. Believe it or not, the governor of the Czech National Bank, Zdenek Tuma, is himself a sitting tenant!"

But what about solidarity with, I don't know, the 85-year-old woman who lives in this building on the 4th floor, who's lived here for four decades, all of a sudden the revolution comes, she lives here because the state controls her rent, surely she should be able to live here and die here?

"This is no problem. I am ready to leave her in the flat, because can you imagine sending someone who is really old, you know, somewhere else? I don't want to do it. This is not a problem, we are ready to leave them in the flats. But what we don't like is the fact that Czech law permits them to register their grandchildren, and they practically take the rent after the grandmother."

So it allows them to perpetuate the system into the future.

"Exactly, this is the biggest problem. That's why we appealed to the European Court of Human Rights, and last Monday, you probably know, the big chamber decided we were right.

Right, well the chamber decided that a Polish complainant was right, not you.

"Yes, well, but it was a pilot case and a pilot case means precedent. Judge Wilharbour, who is the boss of this court, said clearly that this applies to all European countries, and that means the Czech Republic as well."

A lot of people, though, would have problems with the whole idea of buying property for profit. Housing is a basic, fundamental human right, not a means of making money.

"This is absolutely wrong. Your question is very wrong. The absolutely important human right is life - that nobody will kill you. Take food. Why isn't food controlled by the government? You buy bread, and the bakery makes it for their price, nobody asks if you have enough money for it. All countries in Europe since Roman times, I mean it was in Persia before or in China 4,000 years ago - all states were founded for one simple reason: to protect their citizens and protect their property. If you have money to pay, why not? No problem. You have the right to live where you want, but you can't claim the right to live in Vinohrady for little money. It's like living on Hyde Park Corner for twenty pounds per month. Can you imagine somebody living for twenty pounds per month in a building near Hyde Park Corner? This would be ridiculous for English citizens."

But Britain has had a history of continuity of democracy and private ownership. The Czech Republic is a country which has undergone very dramatic, very swift change. The solution of regulating rent, surely there was no other solution?

"Look in 1945 when Nazi Germany was beaten, some lawyers came to Germany from America and England to teach Germans to think democratically. Sixty years after this horrible war finished, you pass through Germany and you see the citizens are happy and reasonable, they were educated to respect private ownership and the Germans today no longer pose a danger. I don't know why the Czechs have to be different."