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Iraq: Lessons Of Postcommunism Can Be Applied To Postwar Rebuilding

Prague, 14 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- For citizens of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the televised images of the fall of Baghdad and the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime have special significance. For many, the scenes of toppling statues, cheering crowds, and even the chaos and anarchy bring back still-vivid memories of their own liberation from communism a decade ago.

To be sure, direct comparisons between Eastern Europe and Iraq are not entirely apt. The historical differences are profound, and the liberation of Iraq was carried out by foreign powers, not ordinary Iraqis. Nevertheless, citizens of all the formerly communist countries could see more than a little of their own history unfolding in Iraq.

Timothy Garton Ash is a contemporary historian at St. Antony's College at Britain's Oxford University. Ash has written extensively about Eastern Europe and the postcommunist transformation. In a recent telephone interview with RFE/RL, Garton Ash said recent events in Iraq brought back to him many memories and emotions from the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe and the fall of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

"Naturally, I myself thought of 1989 or of [the fall of Milosevic in] Belgrade -- two years ago -- watching the statue of Saddam [Hussein] come tumbling down," Garton Ash said.

He said the experiences of Eastern Europe in the 1990s will be instructive in rebuilding Iraq. One important lesson, he said, concerns the treatment of high-ranking members and collaborators of Saddam Hussein's regime. Should they be put on trial -- and, if so, where?

"I think that there is now a body of experience [from Eastern Europe] that suggests, for example, that trials should be used very sparingly. In my view, only the worst political criminals, the torturers, those who committed war crimes or crimes against humanity, should be put on trial, preferably in [the UN war crimes tribunal in] The Hague," he said.

He said the experiences of some Eastern European countries using local courts to try totalitarian crimes -- such as the trial of former East German communist leader Erich Honecker -- are not positive. The main problem, he said, is trying to stretch a country's existing criminal laws to fit the heinous and often special crimes of a brutal dictatorship.

Garton Ash said a better solution would be to try a handful of the worst offenders in international courts and then simply to expel the rest of the former leadership from positions of power. He conceded these types of "purges" are often arbitrary, but said the alternatives -- allowing the individuals to stay in power or trying them in local courts -- are worse.

Garton Ash said another important issue is what to do with the thousands of highly sensitive files on individuals and organization collected by the Iraqi government, the Ba'ath Party, and intelligence agencies. Such files, by their nature, contain highly personal and often explosive information. The temptation by some in Eastern Europe has been simply to publicize everything.

Garton Ash said experience shows that these files should be made available to the public but that access to them should be carefully controlled by an independent authority. He said such files could be used to vet individuals from holding sensitive positions, similar to the system of "lustrace" used in the Czech Republic, but that this should apply only to a small number of individuals.

"[Making the files available] is, on the whole, a positive experience, but I think you can learn from the mistakes that the Germans and others made [by making them too freely available]. I think access to these files should be very carefully controlled by an independent authority. My own view is that lustrace, the [system of using secret files for] vetting [job applicants], should again apply to a relatively small number of people in prominent positions in public life," Garton Ash said.

What about how to treat the former ruling Ba'ath Party, a leftist, socialist party that was later hijacked by Hussein to serve as his personal power base -- much as various communist parties were in Eastern Europe? Should the Ba'ath Party be allowed to compete for power in a free Iraq?

"I think that's a very difficult [issue]. The experience in Eastern Europe is that the communist parties survived and, indeed, flourish now as postcommunist parties. My hunch is that the Ba'ath Party is more comparable with the Nazi Party than it is with, say, the Polish communist party. And that under an occupation regime, it would be reasonable to ban that party, but not, I think, to ban ordinary members or, indeed, junior officials of the Ba'ath Party from participating in the political life of the new democracy." Garton Ash said.

The overall lesson to emerge from Eastern Europe in the 1990s was that, under the right conditions, societies can and do recover from even prolonged periods of dictatorship and repression. Garton Ash said Iraq and Iraqis, too, will likely recover. But he cautioned that much will depend on the depth of ethnic tensions in society and how those tensions are constrained and eventually mollified.

One Eastern European variant of postcommunism that Garton Ash fears is the Yugoslav one. "Is [Iraq] a new Yugoslavia? That is to say, are the ethnic, political splits between Arab and Kurd, between Shiite and Sunni, so deep that it becomes very difficult to sustain a single state?"

He said the Balkan experience instructs that, in general, it's better to keep states together, but not at all costs. Sometimes, he said, a "velvet divorce" is the better option.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.