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Eastern Europe: Analysis From Washington--Overcoming Communism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 27 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Countries seeking to overcome their communist pasts are finding that task far longer and more difficult than they and their supporters had expected.

On Monday, a German court convicted former East German Communist leader Egon Krenz of manslaughter for his role in the shooting deaths of those who attempted to flee to the West during the Cold War.

Also this week, Polish officials began to enforce a new law which requires candidates for parliament to declare in writing whether they ever collaborated with the secret police of the communist regime.

And this month, Hungary also launched a campaign to expose those, especially elected officials, who had collaborated with the secret police during communist times.

All three of these actions are part of the more general effort across the post-communist world at lustration or screening designed to weed out of public life those who committed crimes of one sort or another under communism.

But all these efforts have run into legal, practical, and political difficulties that underscore both the unique features of the communist system and the problems all the successor states have in moving toward democracy.

Legally, efforts to try those who served the communist regimes under the laws of the post-communist states raise many questions. In the Krenz case, for example, the former leader argued that he "wasn't convicted because of a crime" but because of his past position.

Given the general prohibition in Western democracies against judging people by laws they were not then living under, many democrats both in these countries and in the former communist states are reluctant to use the law in this way.

Practically, all these countries are discovering that the police files from communist times are extremely difficult to use. These files have gaps, make false claims and contain fabrications, all of which were designed to entrap people then and now.

The courts in the post-communist states thus face the daunting task of trying to determine who is telling the truth. Moreover, they must do this even as some politicians in these countries use charges of past collaboration to advance their own political careers.

And politically, these efforts to screen out those who committed the worst offenses in the past have run into a number of serious obstacles. Where should the post-communist countries draw the line in prosecuting those who engaged in evil actions in the past?

How should these governments deal with those who committed these acts but subsequently changed their political position and have made significant contributions to the emergence of democracy?

And what should be the statute of limitations on such crimes? Should people who acted according to communist dictates always be at risk of exposure and condemnation by the state authorities?

Because of these problems, many in the West have opposed such screening. They sharply criticized the Czechoslovak parliament in 1991 for its law on lustration and urged other post-communist countries not to follow the example of Prague.

But the problem of coming to terms with the communist past and the continuing role in public life of those who served the communist regimes will not go away for at least a generation either in these countries or as a problem for the international community.

The many victims of communist regimes in these countries will certainly continue to demand justice. And few of them are likely to be satisfied with a ritualistic denunciation of the past, especially when they see their past tormentors in positions of power today.

Such demands pose a difficult problem for the international community as well. In many cases, the people in the post-communist states will be seeking vengeance rather than justice and that could sow the seeds of a new authoritarianism, something no one in the West wants to see.

But the Western democracies have few models on which to draw for giving advice. Their only previous experience with overcoming totalitarianism -- rooting out fascism in Germany and Japan following World War II -- does not seem applicable in the current situation.

The post-communist states of Eastern Europe did not come into existence as a result of military defeat and foreign occupation. Rather these states emerged when their peoples and even leaders liberated themselves from communist totalitarianism. That very different pattern will inevitably affect how they go about the task of overcoming communism.

But this difference does nothing to change the nature of the totalitarian evil of the past. And consequently, unless these countries are successful in overcoming that past, they are likely to face a very difficult future.