Washington, 14 August 2000 (RFE/RL) - A Polish court concluded last week that neither Solidarity founder Lech Walesa nor President Aleksander Kwasniewski had collaborated with communist-era security services, findings that highlight both the continuing impact of this aspect of the communist past and the enormous difficulties people in Eastern Europe have in overcoming it.
Under the terms of a new Polish law which requires candidates for public office to declare whether they ever collaborated with the security services during the communist period, Walesa was forced to defend his reputation against charges that he had worked as an agent with the code name "Bolek."
On Friday, a special screening court concluded that the documents in the files suggesting that Walesa had done so had been planted to discredit him when he was the leader of the anti-communist Solidarity movement. The decision came less than a day after the same court cleared President Kwasniewski of similar allegations.
Had either man been found to have cooperated with the communist security services, despite his claims to the contrary, he would have been excluded from serving in any public office for a period of 10 years.
Because of that possibility, many in Poland appear ready to make such charges to advance their own political agendas at the expense of someone else. Indeed, Walesa was very clear in expressing his disappointment that the screening process -- which he had backed -- had failed to convince everyone that he had not worked in some capacity with communist security agencies.
The political use of such charges now is only one of many reasons people in these countries and abroad have argued against this or any other effort at lustration, at the exposure of senior communist officials and especially communist-era security officers from the past so that they will not be able to subvert democratic efforts to overcome that past.
Opponents of such efforts suggest that the communist-era secret police files are not an especially reliable source. Not only did secret policemen in communist times have an interest in claiming greater successes than they may have had, but on at least some occasions, they may have inserted false information in the files both to compromise people in communist times.
The introduction of such fabrications likely became even more common at the end of the communist period in Eastern Europe. On the one hand, the secret police would have wanted to appear even more successful as things fell apart. And on the other hand, some of them may have been ordered by the Soviet KGB at the time to plant documents that could be used against democratic leaders in the future.
Moreover, those who speak out against lustration frequently argue that any focus on the past will almost inevitably lead to witch hunts against innocent people and thus poison public attitudes at precisely the time that the stability of the countries involved is most at risk.
And finally, opponents of lustration argue that such screenings fail to take into account the fact that people can and do change, that many who were swept up into the net of the communist-era security services had no real choice, and that what people should be most concerned about is the views of people in the present and future rather than their actions in the past.
But despite these arguments, frequently made not only in Eastern Europe but in the West and in Russia as well, many people in that region believe that some effort at lustration is necessary for both practical and moral reasons.
Practically, the supporters of the process Walesa and Kwasniewski went through often suggest such efforts to expose those who did collaborate have the effect of calling attention to the fact that most people did not, even if others assume that they did.
And morally, lustration of the Polish kind in particular does not so much punish individuals for their past action as allow Polish society to express clearly its abhorrence at the activities of the communist-era secret police and the communist past more generally. A rejection of that past, many in these countries argue, is absolutely essential if these societies are to be able to build a future not undermined by the past.
As Walesa and Kwasniewski learned last week, such a process is almost inevitably awkward for both individuals and the societies they live in. And given the high visibility of these two cases, Poles and others as well appear likely to face off again on how best to face up to the past and thereby overcome it.