Lustration after communism in Eastern Europe

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Elections in Czechia are coming up and someone with proven contacts with the former secret police is projected to be the next prime minister.[1] (And a fresh Slovak supreme court ruling should make it impossible to sue archival institutions which hold secret police files for damaging people's reputation.[2])

I've been thinking about some paradoxes that the transition to democracy produced in the post-Communist world. When Eastern Europe democratized in the early 1990s, the revolution led to very little violence. Civilized punishments (laws barring former collaborators from political activities) took years to materialize. That was strange in its own right, because there were many scores to settle after four decades of one-party rule by the Communists.

Monika Nalepa, a University of Chicago political science professor, writes in her book that "few East Central European democratic governments rushed to punish the former autocrats with lustration." Interestingly, Czechoslovakia was an exception because, without delay, it tried to place sanctions on people who had been bullying their fellow citizens. In Slovakia, a lustration law would not be enforced until the early 2000s but at least the Czech Republic was an early adopter, well ahead of Poland and others.

Most countries in the former Soviet sphere of influence would eventually pursue some forms of justice (e.g. legislation condemning the previous regime, and various truth revelation procedures). But one could be forgiven for asking why more restrictions on political and economic activity were not explored, given that the friends of the old regime would re-capture economic privileges and gain political power quite smoothly.

In a recent Monkey Cage piece, Nalepa explains how things should have worked out in theory:

Poland tried to avoid violating nullum crimen sine lege with the idea that instead of punishing former communist spies and high-ranking security officials, it would instead demand that candidates for public office submit affidavits testifying whether they had collaborated with the former authorities. These affidavits would then be checked against existing evidence. Those who lied about their past would be punished with removal from office — not for being a communist spy, but for lying.

The End of Decommunization

Already in mid-1990s, many were people were prepared to move on ("close the books on the crimes of the past"):


Source: Stephen Holmes in Postcommunism: Four Perspectives (edited by Michael Mandelbaum)

Nalepa's book argues that non-communists were, in some cases, persuaded by the outgoing Communist leaders that lustration was, counterintuitively, dangerous for the opposition. Revealing the degree of infiltration would have been embarrassing for the dissidents, the argument goes.

We could think of reasons why the liberal and anti-communist political actors “dragged their feet” when dealing with the past. Maybe the opposition was simply distracted. Economic recessions would have been a more urgent matter whether there was Communist blackmail or not. Besides, the lack of managerial experience among the democrats was also a problem. Further, democrats may simply have had a preference for avoiding violence.

The decision to take violence off the table seems like an under-explored aspect of the transition to democracy in post-communist societies.

Nalepa's book alludes to Morawiecki who “was not nearly as wed to the idea of nonviolence as was Lech Wałesa”, believing that “programmatic nonviolence signaled weak bargaining power”. It could be worth tracing the appeals to nonviolence; some say that Wałesa and Havel singlehandedly decided that there would be no hangings, but what if there is a deeper story?



  1. Latest legal developments: "Slovakia’s Constitutional Court has ordered a lower court to look again at claims that the man who hopes to be the Czech Republic’s next prime minister collaborated with the Czechoslovak communist-era secret police. The court ruled at the request of Slovakia’s Institute of the Nation’s Memory, which holds parts of billionaire Andrej Babis’ secret-police files. The institute said they contain evidence that Babis was an agent. Babis denies that, and Slovak courts previously ruled that there was no proof for the allegation." ↩︎

  2. Dennik N: "Ak sa budú chcieť ľudia zapísaní vo zväzkoch brániť, žalovať už nebudú môcť ÚPN. Ústav tak získal väčšiu istotu do budúcnosti. ... Košice zásadne spochybnili svedectvá bývalých eštebákov. Súdy ich odteraz budú musieť posudzovať omnoho prísnejšie. " ↩︎

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