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Law Divides Poland

Andreas Leixnering (ncy)April 15, 2007

Poland's new lustration law has split the country. It requires more than 700,000 Poles to confess as to whether they were communist spies. It's high time, the law's backers say. Critics have dubbed it a political tool.

You wanted it!
Public sector workers are obligated to expose their communist pastsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Purging the public sector of communists and establishing a "new, morally irreproachable Fourth Republic" is a central issue for Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Law and Justice party, the PiS. He fulfilled a campaign promise by pushing the lustration law -- as well as garnering the support of the many Poles who felt wronged.

"Lustration" comes from Latin and means purification through ceremony or sacrifice. The term is used in Poland and other central and eastern European countries to describe the process of vetting people for collaborating with their countries' intelligence services under communist rule.

Over 700,000 Polish public and state sector workers -- including politicians, civil servants, judges, lawyers, reporters, professors and the heads of state-owned companies -- have until May 15 to declare in writing whether they collaborated with the state security apparatus anytime between July 1944 and July 1990 in communist Poland. Those who fail to do so, or are proven to have lied in their declarations, could be banned from practicing their profession for up to 10 years, according to the law.

Righting wrongs

Since the communist regime was dissolved in 1989, numerous high political officials have been exposed as former communist functionaries. Ex-spies who have used insider knowledge to make money repeatedly show up on lists of the richest Poles.

Nor has the clergy been exempt, as exemplified by the resignation and confession of the archbishop-designate of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, in January. Communist state security files showed he had been a secret agent.

Polen Katholische Kirche Erzbischof Stanislaw Wielgus
Wielgus resigned when his past became publicImage: AP

Poland has been lethargic when it comes to lustration. Before leaving power, the oppositional Solidarity trade union agreed with the Communists to forget the pre-1989 past. Still, in the 1990s there were attempts to use the courts to track down so-called system opportunists, but they were only limited to a small circle of leading politicians and civil servants.

By now expanding lustration to the entire Polish elite, lawmakers are going further than all their post-communist neighbors. But there are problems.

Doctored files

"The law comes much too late and divides Polish society," said Dieter Bingen, director of the German Polish Institute.

Bingen said it was an honorable concern, since the Poles hadn't dealt with the problems in the 1990s. But the approach this time employed the "lawnmower principle," suggesting cultivation of a culture of suspicion. Also, examining hundreds of thousands of declarations would take years, he added.

Polen Lech Kaczynski und Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Warschau
Critics say the Kaczynskis are using the law to target the leftImage: AP

That will be the task of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), which has the communist secret service's files. But can it trust the papers?

"The materials and documents about secret service activities were often doctored in retrospect, besides being incomplete," Bingen said. Even Prime Minister Kaczynski described his own file as a crudely made fake, he added.

Political aims?

Conservative journalists below 40, in particular, the so-called "young wolves," have backed radical lustration of society. Others, however, see the law as an instrument to morally discredit anyone who is left of the party of Kaczynski and his twin brother, Bingen said.

The fight between the two sides is especially fierce among Poland's newspapers, whose journalists are also obligated to pen declarations about their pasts.

Adam Michnik
Adam Michnik's paper has been fighting the lawImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Under its editor-in-chief, former anti-communist dissident Adam Michnik, the liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza has been a leader in the protest against the law. Conservative daily Rzeczpospolita is on Kaczynski's side, arguing that as the fourth estate, journalists must also be willing to reveal their pasts.

Poland's highest court could overthrow the law in May. But if it does not, lustration might just have some unpleasant consequences for the right's ideals of a moral Poland. The law would mainly have an impact on people who were part of the anti-communist opposition, Bingen said. In reality, the opposition was repeatedly forced to deal with secret service agents in one way or another.

The possibility "that the reputation of the 'system opposition' as a whole could suffer damage can't be the Kaczynski brothers' intention," Bingen said.