Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

POLAND: Not Done With Fighting the Past

Zoltán Dujisin

KRAKOW, Aug 23 2007 (IPS) - After a tough decision by Poland’s constitutional court, and with early elections looming, it remains unclear how the country will deal with its government’s attempt to expose former communist collaborators.

President Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, made the cleansing of communists from Poland’s public life an electoral promise back in 2005, but now Poland is heading for early elections after disagreements within the governing coalition.

The current PiS (Law and Justice) government has been accused by foreign and domestic observers alike of being too obsessed with settling past scores and correcting history.

Yet similar attempts at limiting the participation in public life of former communists have been observable since 1992.

The vetting law was passed on Mar. 15 on the initiative of the ruling PiS Party, and required individuals holding public posts to be screened for possible collaboration with communist Poland’s secret services.

Several high-ranking Polish figures refused to submit their vetting statements, most notably former foreign minister and dissident Bronislaw Geremek, who was in April still a deputy of the European Parliament.

Geremek, who was eventually stripped of his mandate, called the vetting law “paranoid” and a reflection of some politicians’ belief that “the communist clique rules the economy, the media, the state.”

On May 11 Poland’s constitutional tribunal deemed central provisions of the vetting law to be unconstitutional, namely the clauses on vetting university personnel in private universities, journalists and publishers.

The tribunal also struck down a provision imposing a 10-year ban on whoever failed to comply with the vetting procedures. Up to 700,000 Poles could have been subjected to the process of lustration under the provisions of the original law.

But the debate is hardly over, says Piotr Maciej Kaczynski, an analyst at the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. “The lustration itself is constitutional, but the way the lustration was proposed is unconstitutional,” he told IPS.

“Because the constitutional tribunal basically threw the substantial part of the legislation to the bin, parliament will have to amend the adopted legislation in line with the constitution,” Kaczynski said.

“Since then we’ve had more serious political turmoil with the dismantling of coalition, but new legislation on lustration is necessary for elections to take place, because every candidate has to submit a statement denying collaboration with the former secret police.”

The most obvious solution he says will be to find a minimum common denominator on which most political forces can agree, “but the big lustration law reform will not happen before elections.”

The tribunal’s decision has made the law unclear and has also halted the process of submitting vetting statements, but the debate is now centred on a proposal to publish the names of those known to have collaborated with the previous regime.

While not contesting the decision, the twin brothers where deeply disturbed by the tribunal’s decision, and the government is flirting with the idea of publishing a list of 500 public figures who allegedly collaborated with the communist secret services.

“It is not completely illegal to publish a list of 500 names, the problem is that the process is not fully regulated, and there is no procedure to verify mistakes,” Piotr Maciej Kaczynski told IPS.

President Lech Kaczynski had threatened to open communist-era files as a “brutal solution” right when the tribunal announced it was looking into the vetting law’s compatibility with Poland’s constitution.

State officials and the heads of the Institute of National Remembrance, established in 1998 by the polish parliament to investigate and prosecute “crimes against the Polish nation,” have had access to these files. Some stand accused of misusing the information to intimidate political opponents.

Some analysts would prefer an open-archive policy to the selective revealing of data that can easily serve power interests, and see this as the only way out of the endless lustration debate.

Others are concerned the information contained in the archives could do much harm to innocent people on whom communist authorities had attempted to dig up dirt, while also revealing irrelevant private details.

“Many people collaborated under pressure, the situation of Poland was very different then,” a former civil servant now retired told IPS. “People often had to collaborate out of fear for their families or to be able to go abroad.”

In spite of all the setbacks and opposition, the Kaczynski brothers have kept busy on other fronts. By altering a bill on military service last June, all officers from the rank of lieutenant upward will have to undergo vetting procedures so that, in the words of PiS deputy Michal Jach, Poland will have “guarantees that our cadres meet the highest patriotic standards.”

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