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Poland: Tough Lustration Law Divides Society

Warsaw Archbishop Stanislaw Wielgus was the first major figure to fall victim to the law (file photo) (epa) March 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A controversial law went into effect in Poland this month that goes further than anything similar in the region, requiring hundreds of thousands of citizens in positions of authority, including academics, journalists, teachers, and state company executives, to declare in writing whether they cooperated with the communist secret services -- or risk losing their jobs.

The new lustration law has divided Poland, and the dividing lines are deep, even among those who fought against communism.

Jan Litynski, a former Polish dissident and politician, was a founding member of the Workers' Defense Committee, a major anticommunist organization in the 1980s. He was also an adviser to Solidarity and a negotiator at the 1989 talks between the trade union and communist government. He later became a member of parliament.

Litynski says Poland, nearly two decades after communism's fall, does not need new vetting procedures. He believes existing laws are sufficient to keep people who collaborated with the communist-era secret services out of power.

"It's nonsense. We had quite a good law," he says. "We should have limited ourselves to [vetting] people who hold public office -- MPs, ministers, directors who pursue national interests."

Proving that a person collaborated with the secret police is tricky. Some of the files have been tampered with, or are simply missing.

Defining Collaboration

Then there's the fact that the communist-era secret police harassed large numbers of people, forcing many to sign loyalty declarations or to collaborate. Most people lied, signing the declarations but not really spying.
"We should have limited ourselves to [vetting] people who hold public
office -- MPs, ministers, directors who pursue national interests."

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that those people could not be considered collaborators. But under the law, which takes precedence, they are likely to be considered collaborators.

The Catholic archbishop-designate of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, seems to fall into this group. However, in January he announced his resignation after accusations that he was a collaborator. His resignation added additional momentum to the lustration cause.

Litynski says the new law differs from the former legislation in that it also includes private companies. "Almost all newspapers [in Poland] are private and there are many [private] scientific institutes and universities, which are to be lustrated now," he says.

A group of journalists from "Gazeta Wyborcza," which is one of Poland's most influential newspapers and was created by anticommunist dissidents, has announced it is boycotting the law.

The country's largest academic institution, Warsaw University, called on March 22 for the suspension of the new law.

Righting Past Wrongs

The law empowers the Institute of National Remembrance, which has communist security-service files, to identify collaborators. People have to submit their declarations to the institute and lying might mean a 10-year professional ban.

Lukasz Kaminski, a historian working at the Institute of National Remembrance, is one of those Poles who find lustration to be an essential cleansing process that was not carried out when communism collapsed.

"We still have problems with our past. This past is not finished yet. There are some problems with former security officers, with former agents, some unknown links between them, there are some problems in politics, in economy [related to the former security services]," Kaminski says. "People have the right to know who was a traitor and who no. Especially among politicians, journalists and etc."

Kaminski says journalists, though working for private newspapers, are important figures in public life, and society has the right to know if they had contacts with the communist security services.

Difficult To Implement

However, officials admit it will be difficult to implement the law in practice, as it will involve many people and a lot of paperwork. Kaminski says the law's main shortcoming is that the net is being cast too wide.

Are Jaroslaw (left) and Lech Kaczynski taking revenge on former elites? (epa file photo)

Institute of National Remembrance Vice President Maria Dmochowska says the process might prove quite long. "Some people in our institute think that if we will lustrate everyone we need [to] according to the law, it might last longer than 10 years," she notes. "Those who are in power, we are obliged to lustrate during their term in power and we did it."

Why is the new government so eager to dig into the past? Wiktor Osiatynski, a Polish political analyst, wrote in "The New York Times" on January 22 that it might be motivated by revenge. Their "higher-stature colleagues in Solidarity" alienated both current Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother Jaroslaw, who is prime minister, in the early 1990s, he says.

"So when the twins decided to create the Law and Justice party, they turned to young people on the far right. Now, driven by resentment against an entire generation of older politicians, the Kaczynskis are happy to see them purged from offices and replaced by their own loyalists," Osiatynski wrote.

Litynski says he does not support this theory and says "human naivety" and "stupidity" is behind the lustration. He says it is impossible to recreate what happened in the past by reading only secret-police files.