Poland looks back in anger

New `lustration' law aims to ferret out the nation's `post-communist monster'; observers say leaders overstate the old regime's influence

By Tom Hundley
Tribune foreign correspondent

November 28, 2006

WARSAW -- In 1989, when Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a soft-spoken Catholic intellectual, became Poland's first non-communist prime minister in the postwar era, his first promise was to draw "a thick line" separating Poland from its past.

Democratic Poland, he clearly implied, would focus on building its future, not settling scores from the past.

Seventeen years later, Poland's current leaders--Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the identical twins who serve, respectively, as president and prime minister--are determined to erase that line. Their Law and Justice Party came to power in elections last year by pledging to settle accounts with the old regime.

This month President Kaczynski signed a new "lustration" bill that will open millions of volumes of communist-era secret police files in a belated attempt to slay "the post-communist monster" that the brothers claim still haunts Poland.

Lustration is not a word commonly used in English. It means "to purify by a propitiatory offering or other ceremonial method," according to Webster's dictionary. In the former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe, it came to mean the exposing and banning of communists and their collaborators from participation in the new system.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former East Germany and the Czech Republic pursued aggressive lustration policies with mixed results. Poland opted for the more forgiving "thick line" approach; this, too, has produced very mixed results.

These days, there are two schools of thought on Poland's transition from communism to free-market democracy.

The first holds that the process inevitably would be a bumpy ride that produced its share of winners and losers. Perhaps it is unfortunate that a disproportionate number of ex-communists and their friends are among the winners, according to this view, but Poland's democracy seems secure and its economy is growing.

The second school of thought holds that the real power in Poland continues to be held by a shadowy network of ex-communists, former secret policemen and the gangsters who do their bidding. According to this school of thought, Poland will never be free until this network is exposed and crushed.

The Kaczynskis are proponents of the second school.

Old boy network disputed
"It has been their religion for the last 17 years," said Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a Warsaw think tank.
"Of course there are networks of people who know each other from the past," she said. "England has its old boy network. Every society has this."
Like many of Poland's Westernized elites, often more comfortable in Brussels than in Bydgoszcz, Kolarska-Bobinska doubts Poland's network of old boys is as sinister or powerful as the Kaczynskis make it out to be.
But Janusz Kurtyka, a young historian who heads the Institute of National Remembrance, the agency that will preside over the lustration process, says the "thick line" approach was a mistake that has returned to haunt Poland with a vengeance.
"I was never one who thought that separating ourselves from the past was the right thing to do, or even a possible thing to do," he said.
"What's behind us are several decades of a totalitarian regime in which the secret police played a role of paramount importance," he said. "We can't move forward ... [until] we make sure that the people who shape our future are not implicated in this past."

Under the new law, all politicians, civil servants and others in positions of public trust, including school principals and journalists, will have to obtain a clean bill of health from the remembrance institute, which is known by the Polish acronym IPN. The files of these people would then be available for public scrutiny on the Internet.
The new lustration process also will disclose the names of people who met with the secret police on an "institutional" or "operational" basis, but were not necessarily informants or collaborators. In a totalitarian state with an all-pervasive security apparatus, this would mean people such as factory managers who received routine visits from the secret police or parish priests who needed to get police permission for parishioners to travel on pilgrimages.
Critics say the new law is a politically motivated witch hunt that will harm innocent people, and even Kurtyka agrees that its scope should be scaled back.

Vetting could take a decade
As it stands now, 500,000 to 1.5 million people could come under fresh scrutiny. Kurtyka estimated that the process of vetting everyone would take at least a decade.
The Kaczynski brothers, both of whom were prominent Solidarity activists, were pushing the Polish government to reconsider the "thick line" approach as early as 1991.
One institution that appears most nervous about the new lustration law is the Roman Catholic Church. While the church is rightly seen as one of the heroes in the struggle against the totalitarian state, there is little doubt that some of its priests were compromised. Kurtyka estimated the proportion could be as high as 20 percent.
"It will be a mess for sure," said Andrzej Friszke, a contributing editor to Wiez, a leading Catholic journal.
Friszke, a historian and member of the IPN board, said 90 percent of the files on alleged church collaborators were destroyed between 1989 and 1990.
"The archives are incomplete, and it's hard to know why certain files were saved and others were destroyed. That's why this whole process will never be credible," he said.
"The people who prepared this legislation have never been in the archives. They don't know what they are talking about," Friszke said.
Andrzej Paczkowski is another historian who has reservations about lustration. Noting that the new legislation was drafted by some of the younger members of the Law and Justice Party, he characterized it as "a revolt of the young generation ... and an opportunity for them to eliminate older elites."
Instead of opening the files on a million people, many of whom are now dead, Paczkowski said it would be more useful to start in the present and work backward.
"A good example is Mazur," he said, referring to Edward Mazur, a Chicago man who holds U.S. and Polish citizenship and has been linked by Polish authorities to organized crime. Mazur, wanted for allegedly ordering the 1998 murder of Polish National Police Chief Marek Papala, is fighting extradition back to Poland.
"Go after corruption and go after the mafia," said Paczkowski. "In Mazur's case, check the archives: Was he a secret collaborator? Who was his officer? Who were his associates? In which domain did he work? But don't start by opening a million files to look for 2,000 or 3,000 Mazurs."

`Look at Russia, at Ukraine'
Although much of the Polish intelligentsia sees the Kaczynski brothers as provincial, and their obsession with righting the wrongs of the past as misguided and too late, Jerzy Targalski strongly disagrees.
"Look around you. Look at Russia, at Ukraine," he said. "In all all-post-communist societies, true power still belongs to the secret police and their collaborators."
Targalski, an academic, former dissident and one-time translator for Radio Free Europe, recently was named to the board of state-run Polish Radio.
The Kaczynskis believe Polish Radio is part of the secret network, and Targalski's appointment to the governing board opens yet another front in the brothers' war on the past, a role Targalski seems to relish.
"I am from the right, but I have nothing against leftist journalists," he explained. "I just don't think collaborators should be journalists."