This week, Romanians were allowed access for the first time to the secret files kept on them by the notorious communist-era secret police, the Securitate. But the opening of the archives has renewed a dispute between those Romanians who oppose public access to the files and those who say the documents are necessary to help the country come to terms with its often troubled past.
Prague, 30 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Earlier this week (Wednesday) Romanians were given the opportunity for the first time to view their communist-era secret police files.
Like most former Eastern bloc countries, Romania has been divided on the issue of access to secret-police files since the collapse of communism 11 years ago. But the debate has been particularly tense in Romania, where a vast communist-era surveillance network contributed to a proportionally larger number of files being compiled than in other countries in the East.
The path to granting public access to the files was cleared in 1999, when the Romanian parliament passed a law aimed at releasing previously protected information about the Securitate, the country's infamous communist-era secret police.
The law passed after six years of parliamentary debate. Critics say the law was gradually amended into a weaker version of the original bill put forward by a prominent former political prisoner (Christian Democrat politician Ticu Dumitrescu). But it still provided for the creation of a special parliamentary committee, known as the CNSAS, to manage the files, most of which are still being kept in the archives of the Romanian Intelligence Service, or SRI, the successor to the Securitate.
It has taken the CNSAS more than a year's preparation to enable the opening of the files, which finally began this week. Romanians who hold current citizenship -- or held it at any given time after 1945 -- can now find out whether they or their next of kin had a Securitate file and what it contains.
Among the data included in the files are details about the informant. However, only some of the files are said to contain the actual name of the informant -- in most instances, a code name is used instead.
CNSAS spokeswoman Carmen Pescaru told our correspondent that according to estimates, there are some 60 kms of files in the archive of the Romanian Intelligence Service, even though the SRI itself puts the volume at only 20 kms. Pescaru adds that the Securitate may have had as many as 700,000 informants working in Romania, a country of some 20 million.
"There were between 400,000 and 700,000 informants, each of whom was responsible for spying on two or three people. This is information provided by [CNSAS] President Gheorghe Onisoru."
Pescaru says both the law and the CNSAS committee are important steps toward Romania's eventual entry into NATO and the European Union.
"In my opinion, we -- Romanians -- should very clearly define what we want. If we say we want to join NATO and the European Union, I believe that the existence of this institution is absolutely necessary."
But Pescaru says that so far relatively few Romanians -- just over 1,000 -- have filed written requests to see their record. This does not seem much compared to former East Germany, where since 1992 more than 3 million people have asked a specially created office to let them inspect the estimated 180 kms of files kept by the infamous Stasi secret police.
More recently, some other countries from the former communist bloc have also created committees to tackle the thorny issue of secret police files.
In Poland, some 5,000 people have turned to the Institute of National Remembrance, created last year to manage the dossiers kept on them by the Polish communist police. In Bulgaria, where parliamentary elections are due in less than three months, recently approved legislation provides for the creation of a seven-member commission appointed by parliament and the government, which will gather and analyze information from secret-police files.
In Romania, the CNSAS published the names of candidates in last year's election who used to be Securitate informants or officers. But the law does not bar those who did have connections with the secret police from running for public office.
Besides studying their private file, Romanians can submit official requests to find out whether public office holders were connected to the communist secret police. But they are not entitled to inquire whether ordinary citizens -- for example, somebody's neighbor -- were Securitate collaborators.
By law, the CNSAS is the rightful owner of the Securitate files, which are now in the archives of the SRI and other Romanian secret services. There is one exception, though -- files considered threatening for the country's national security.
An SRI spokesman, speaking under the condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that, in assessing a file's impact on national security, both the SRI and CNSAS must observe a set of existing laws.
"We have to observe, first of all, the national security law, the SRI law, and the national archives law -- a law that regulates all archives in Romania. There are other regulations, too. But I repeat, decisions regarding national security are made jointly [by the SRI and CNSAS]."
But analysts say that national security protection is mainly an excuse for the secret services to withhold compromising files. Berlin-based journalist William Totok -- a former ethnic-German dissident from Romania and author of a book on the means of repression used by the Securitate -- says that this provision in fact protects the identity of former Securitate agents.
"Even though [the law] provides for the CNSAS to reveal the identities of the former Securitate officers, the SRI can place the file under embargo, evoking the law regulating state secrets, and thus the contents of the file remains unknown to the CNSAS."
More than one year after the law came into force, Romanians remain divided over its usefulness. Some officials, including President Ion Iliescu -- a former communist -- and Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, have said the law will prevent national reconciliation. Nastase, himself a law professor during communism, accused the investigative committee's staff of trying to squeeze advantages from their government-funded jobs. He said they will "lick the files for many years to come."
But writer Totok, who was detained by the Securitate during communism, says that the law -- despite its serious flaws -- will help Romanians to try and come to terms with their painful past.
"I think that the Romanian law [will] allow an opening and even a more careful assessment of the past 40 years of communism."
Some of those who get to see their files will have to live with the trauma of painful revelations about friends or relatives who were enlisted to spy on them. Constantin Badea, an engineer who worked in France during a part of the communist era, was among the first to see his file this week. Badea was monitored by the Securitate until 1986, wrongfully suspected of being a French spy. He says he cannot reverse the past injustices, but seeing his file will help his family and children understand his painful past.
"After 10 years of harassment and another 10 years of waiting -- 20 years altogether -- I cannot use this file for myself. But to educate my children and their children -- yes, it is useful to see."
Badea says that he discovered the identity of all the friends and colleagues who reported on him. But even though many of them are still alive, he does not want revenge. He says it is simply enough to see his own file.