Lustration Frustration: Politics and pragmatism in resolving the past

On 6th January the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), a government affiliated research institute charged with investigating Nazi and Communist crimes in Poland, updated its website with the latest tranche of records of over 1,000 current public officials compiled by the Polish Communist Secret Police (SB) during the Cold War era.

A few days later, General Kiszczak, the former head of the SB between 1981?83, who is on trial for his role in initiating martial law in 1981, admitted that he ordered the secret police to record information gathered by bugs and listening devices planted in suspects’ homes as if it was coming voluntarily from the accused. So it comes as no surprise that the current government is signalling that it wants to abandon the largely discredited lustration process and throw open all SB records to public scrutiny, a move that is not entirely popular with the Polish public.

The term “lustration” has been used in Poland since 1992 to refer to the policy of limiting the participation of former communists in government and the civil service. It is derived from the Latin lustrum, an ancient Roman and Greek ceremony of purification. In Polish, lustro is also the word for mirror, so lustration suggests a self-examination and reckoning. Unfortunately, unlike the Nuremburg trials and the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Polish process for coming to terms with the past was compromised by the need for pragmatism and corrupted by political point scoring. SB files were not opened to public scrutiny immediately after the fall of communism, government officials and civil servants were not removed en masse from their positions and the need to get on with the task of reconstruction overrode the need for reconciliation with the past. As a result, the original purpose of the process was diluted, its methodology was muddied and it became a political tool used to discredit opposition by insinuation rather than hard evidence.

Since it was first passed in 1992, the Lustration Law has undergone numerous changes and generated a lot of controversy. In the early days, the process brought down Jan Olszewski’s government after the interior minister was accused of tampering with information for political reasons. More recently, in 2006, the former Archbishop of Warsaw was forced to resign an hour before his public installation ceremony when it was revealed that he was an SB collaborator.

The Kaczynski twins, elected in 2005 on the ticket of cleaning up public service, passed the 2006 Lustration Law which gave the IPN new powers to investigate and publish records by setting up its Lustration Bureau. It also required over 700,000 professionals (including academics, diplomats, journalists and teachers) to sign written statements on whether they had cooperated with the SB. The International Herald Tribune described it as a “mad” law that “makes the McCarthyites of the U.S. in the 1950s look like amateurs at the practice of anti-Communism,” and two months later the Polish Constitutional Court judged key aspects of the law to be unconstitutional in the light of the Polish Constitution and the 1950 European Convention on Human Rights.

The requirement to sign statements was dropped but the IPN has been publishing the records of key groups ever since. This includes those currently in public service, those monitored by the SB, functionaries of the communist security apparatus and those in positions of power during the regime.

The first records of public figures, starting with the president and the prime minister, were made public in September 2007 and the process has been sweeping through government and the civil service ever since. In December 2007 the records of those elected to parliament in the last election were published, revealing that 10 MPs and three senators were registered as collaborators by the communist secret services. All denied these charges and some voluntarily submitted their own lustration statements.

The most recent tranche of released records included those of the president of the eastern city of Zamość, Marcin Zamoyski, and indicated that he was registered as a secret service collaborator in 1986 with the pseudonym “Count” (an apt choice as Zamoyski is, in fact, a member of the Polish nobility). Zamoyski denies the charge.

With the revelations from General Kiszczak’s trial it has come as no surprise that in late January 2009 the PO government signalled that they want to abolish the lustration bureau of the IPN and open all records to the public. However, despite the lack of confidence in the effectiveness of the process and the truthfulness of the records, a survey conducted for Rzeczpospolita showed that 59 percent of people surveyed do not want the Lustration Bureau of the IPN to be dissolved and that 80 percent of respondents do not want former agents of the communist secret services in positions of public service. How the current government is going to square this circle remains to be seen.

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