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Poland: Analysis From Washington -- Facing The Past, Facing The Future

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A new Polish law requiring parliamentarians and other senior officials to declare whether they worked with communist-era security forces appears likely to spark demands for similar legislation in other post-communist states.

And even if no other country actually takes this step, the Polish legislation by itself almost certainly will reignite debates across this region about how these countries can overcome their communist past and move to a post-communist future.

On Thursday, Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski signed a new law that will require all senior officials, parliamentary deputies and judges to declare whether they worked with communist-era security organs.

Under the terms of the new law, those who acknowledge that they did so will not be forced out of public life as some had wanted. But those who do not acknowledge such involvement and are subsequently found to have lied will face fines and a 10-year ban from such posts in the future.

Kwasniewski -- himself an ex-communist -- had opposed the law, arguing that it undermined the rights of individual citizens and could lead to a witch hunt among current officials. But he said he had no choice but to sign it after the country's highest court found the legislation to be constitutional.

Immediately after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and in the post-Soviet states, many democrats demanded that those who worked with communist security organs or even who served as senior officials in the communist state should not be able to occupy any position of public trust.

Indeed, many democrats and reformers argued that their countries could move into the democratic future only if they squarely faced the evils of the past and excluded those most directly involved from any senior posts in the future.

Such demands for de-communization of these societies were modeled on the de-Nazification effort in Germany after World War II. At that time, occupation forces excluded from public life senior Nazi political and security officials in order to allow Germany to put its fascist past behind it.

But if this de-Nazification effort enjoyed broad support both in Germany and abroad, the proposals in 1989 and 1991 for the exclusion of communists and security officials from political life ran into serious opposition on three grounds.

First, many in these countries and abroad recognized that communism had been in power far longer and involved far more people. Any effort at lustration would thus affect far more people and could destabilize these countries at precisely the time when they needed stability in order to make the transitions to democracy and free markets.

Second, many in both places were concerned that charges of complicity with communism or with communist-era security organs would be used selectively and politically, against ethnic Russians in the post-Soviet non-Russian countries and against other minorities in ways that would inevitably be unfair.

And third, many pointed out that communists and even security officials often had taken the lead in overthrowing communism and thus should be rewarded for their courage rather than punished for having been members of these organizations in the past.

For all these reasons, earlier efforts to promote lustration legislation attracted the fire of political leaders both in these countries and abroad. When the Czech government passed a lustration law, many there and in the West criticized it. And when Baltic governments took up the issue, both Russia and the West did what they could to block it.

But several features of the new Polish law may help to power a new round of demands for such legislation elsewhere. Like the South African reconciliation commissions with which it has been compared, the Polish law does not directly punish anyone who owns up to his past actions and leaves any political judgment of the honest to the voters.

In addition, it targets only those who were involved in the security organs, often the most noxious part of the communist system, and not those who were members of the communist party or served in the party state.

And finally, the Polish law creates a series of special institutions to ensure that the process of vetting the declarations of current officials will be transparent and that the legal and constitutional rights of all individuals will be protected by the courts.

Given these arrangements, far fewer people either in these countries or elsewhere are likely to object to a system that may help these countries to deal with their pasts and thus face the future with renewed confidence.