Accessibility links

Breaking News

Analysis From Washington -- Toward Collective Innocence?

Washington, May 8 (RFE/RL) - This week's trial of three men charged with crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia -- the first such case before an international tribunal since the 1940s -- inevitably reopens two difficult questions: Who is responsible for the crimes against humanity in the former Soviet bloc? And how should those involved be treated?

Virtually everyone acknowledges that terrible things happened during the Soviet period, but there has been less agreement on how that past should be confronted or who should be held responsible. Some have wanted to root out all those with any involvement in the previous regimes, but most have recognized just how difficult or even dangerous such an approach might be.

For its part, the international community generally has opposed any application of a policy of lustration -- the exclusion of individuals from political life or their judicial punishment for past actions under a previous regime. And virtually all the countries in the region have gone along with this.

There are weighty prudential reasons for such an approach. Identification of those responsible for crimes committed during the Soviet period in many cases would have been difficult and divisive, might have increased political turmoil, and could easily have complicated the devolution of power to the newly independent states.

Some who bear responsibility for actions in the past have in fact changed and thus there is great reluctance to hold them accountable now. And in all these countries, it would have been virtually impossible to form a new elite without drawing from the old one.

But however justified, such a strategy has had some negative consequences:

First, it has contributed to a broader problem: the widespread notion in these countries that they need not or even should not confront their pasts. But unless they do, they are unlikely to complete the changes they have begun.

One of the reasons that Germany has been transformed since 1945 is that Germans have been forced to acknowledge that the Hitlerite regime was evil. All too many people in the post-Soviet states have been able to deny the obvious about the past of their own countries.

Second, it has undermined for many in these countries the notion of individual responsibility as such. Because a sense of personal responsibility is needed for both democracy and a free market, this approach has unintentionally retarded rather than advanced the causes in whose name it was adopted.

Indeed, the fact that many have avoided responsibility for what they did in the past has led many to conclude that they can escape responsibility for what they are doing now. This may not be the most important contributing factor to the rise of crime in all these countries but it is certainly one of them.

And third, this approach has made the return of the past in whole or in part far more likely. By failing to be clear about what was wrong and who was responsible, the new regimes have allowed some of those responsible for the horrors of the past not only to pose as champions of reform but also to seek to turn the clock back.

In the current Russian electoral campaign, Boris Yeltsin and those committed to reform have each charged that the Russian Communist Party wants to return to the past. The extent to which that is true remains an open question, but it is significant that the current communists have not disowned the past -- in large measure because they have not been forced to.

Instead, they have been able to rely on a strange inversion of values about the past: In Soviet times, the communist party was always right while individual communists made mistakes. Now, when looking at the past, the party as an entity can be criticized but individual communists -- including those who continue to advance the ideas of the past -- are not responsible for anything they might have done.

One can only hope that Russia's future will not serve as confirmation of American philosopher George Santayana's dictum that those who forget the past will be condemned to relive it.