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Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution resulting in the change of regime, common feeling prevailing in both, Slovakia and the Czech Republic is disillusion. According to the latest polls of STEM agency, forty years of communist oppression would not discourage 12.3% Czechs to vote for the Communist Party in next election. In Slovakia, the Communist Party would enjoy only 3.1% support as FOCUS agency discovered. However, it cannot be concluded that Czechs excused leaders and collaborators of former regime whereas Slovaks did not.
These figures have to be seen in the light of approaches Slovakia and the Czech Republic pursued in coping with their communist past. Absence of the lustration law in Slovakia caused that leaders and collaborators of former regime pervaded into new political system easily, and now can be found in many other parties throughout the political spectrum, apart from the Communist Party. Thus, their actual support cannot be verified. Whereas, the lustration law in the Czech Republic disqualified leaders and collaborators of former regime from holding public positions.
This essay tries to argue that although approaches Slovakia and the Czech Republic pursued in coping with their communist past were completely different, surprisingly, none of them led to satisfactory outcomes. This essay primarily presents strengths and weaknesses of the lustration law adopted in 1991, as it applied to the Czech Republic and Slovakia together until its dissolution in 1993. Moreover, with minor changes, it has been valid since then in the Czech Republic. On the contrary, in Slovakia it expired in 1996. This essay describes unfavourable consequences of absence of the lustration law in Slovakia. However, it also mentions harms its existence and strict enforcement did in the Czech Republic.
While being a common state, Czechs and Slovaks pursued the same attitude in coping with their communist past. Its Federal Assembly passed the lustration law as the first post communist government on October 4, 1991. This law stated precisely who can and cannot hold certain public positions. A person who was: “member of State Secret Police (hereinafter referred to as StB), resident, agent, owner of “conspiracy flat”, informer, ideological or conscious collaborator of StB, high-ranked official of the Communist Party, member of People’s Militias, student, or researcher at one of the KGB universities for longer than three months,” was excluded from public employment (Act on Lustration 1991). In addition, this law specified more precisely category conscious collaborator as “person recorded in StB files as confident or candidate for collaboration” (1991).
The lustration law, valid until 1996, obliged everyone holding a leading public position, including public enterprises, courts, media outlets and higher education institutions to require the Interior Ministry for lustration certificate, of 8-euro value (Lustration Act 1991). However, lustrations happened even before putting the lustration law into life. The Federal Assembly already in January that year passed a resolution in accordance with all members of parliament, ministers, their deputies and civil servants had to be screened for StB collaboration.
It did not take long until the first ethical concerns were raised about both, the resolution and the lustration law. Roman David mentions that the International Labour Organisation criticized them for being discriminatory towards the expression of political opinion and human rights groups for violating the right to express, associate, be free from discrimination, and participate in public life (2004, 790).
The headlines of internationally respected dailies called lustrations in Czechoslovakia “Witch Hunts”, “Hunts for Villains” (New York Times 1991) or “Grounds for New Injustices” (Le Monde 1992), describing them as threats to democracy, fragile anyway at that time. Many scholars mention that new policy makers used exactly contrary argument, defending lustrations as a mean to build and strengthen democracy. They believed if leaders and collaborators with former regime were given public employment, it would undermine democracy. (David 2004, 795; Williams 2003, 2)
In this regard, it is difficult, if not impossible to decide who was wrong and right. However, it is possible to define the strengths and weaknesses of the lustration law from 1991.
First, the criticism of the lustration law based on the deprivation of political rights does not hold the water. It prevented leaders and collaborators of former regime from public employment, but as Roman David argues “the right to public employment was deliberately omitted from the European Convention of Human Rights” (2004, 797). Moreover, he adds that the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989 “was a monolithic organisation which excluded opposition, prohibited discussion and did not allow free elections” (2004, 799). It cannot be considered standard political party as it does not fulfil general criteria of a political party recognized in democracy. Thus, it “can hardly claim the same legal protection which is given to other parties.” (2004, 799)
Furthermore, public employment is identified with certain values. Roman David uses an example of USA where “the Supreme Court has confirmed several qualifications for public employees, such as ‘trust’, ‘integrity and competency’, ‘fitness and loyalty’ and ‘impartiality’, ‘fairness and effectiveness'” (2004, 797). This shows that the public employment demands exemplary behaviour. Can someone who contributed to oppression of others be an example for others? Does he hold these values?
When identifying former regime and its actors, its crimes should not be overlooked. According to the Czech Office for the Documentation and the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, from 1948 to 1989, 205 486 persons were imprisoned and 248 persons were executed for political reasons, 282 persons died when trying to cross western borders, and 21 440 persons were placed in forced labour camps from 1948 to 1953. Besides, these figures do not include damages of those, who were deprived from possibility to study, work in their field, and were exposed to constant pursuit of StB and regular interrogations, during which StB members were not reluctant to use violent practices.
The Communist Party not only gave consent to these practices carried out by the People’s Militias that was armed forces of the Communist Party and by StB, it encouraged them to use them. Would not their former members be a threat to unstable democracy in Czechoslovakia, if they were given a chance to participate in public decisions? Knowing the context, is not surprising that after 1989 new policy makers took uncompromising stance towards leaders and collaborators with former regime and dismissed them from political life.
However, while one ethical concern was solved, another popped up. If a dismissal from public employment was legitimate, then who to dismiss was in question. As nothing is black and white, simple division on ‘bad’ and ‘good’ proved to be impossible for a whole variety reasons. Certainly, thousands of people collaborated with former regime voluntarily for personal gains, fully aware of harms their actions caused to others. However, with new lustrations becoming public, new life stories disclosed proved it was not always the case. Some people seemed to be forced to agree on collaboration. Simply, they had no other choice if they wanted to protect their families and friends, keep their employment, study at universities or even if they wanted to continue dissenting against regime. Who could say s/he was in such situation and decided not to collaborate? A handful could.
The political party Public against Violence (hereinafter referred to as VPN), created after 1989 mostly from dissidents was one of the firsts that decided to verify whether their candidates ranked to this handful and screened them for StB collaboration. “If they were positive (meaning, they had records in StB files as collaborators), either they resigned or we withdrew them from their position. These were dreadful days. We saw life stories of people who were broken in prisons, uranium mines, during their travels abroad or simply at work. Some of them were our long-time friends,” Fedor Gal, Slovak dissident and co-founder of VPN recalls (tyzden 2009). It turned out some of leaders of the Velvet revolution had records in StB files as hostile persons, but as collaborators at the same time. The situation got complicated. Was it right to use the same measure for everyone? Moreover, when the definition of categories excluded from public employment in the lustration law proved to be imprecise.
However, no controversy could be found in respect to high-ranked officials of the Communist Party, the same could not be said about StB collaborators and members of People’s Militias. High positions in the Communist Party were to be queued. Everyone who reached this hierarchic level within the system not only decided voluntarily, but also had to put much effort in order to reach it. As Roman David argues, “Only devoted and loyal candidates were granted membership.” He stresses these were aware of illicit aims of the Communist Party (2004, 802). The StB collaborators were also conscious members. However, in some cases StB members blackmailed them in order to make them sign the agreement on co-operation.
Still, the biggest loophole occurred in the category of People’s Militias members. As Roman David emphasises, even though People’s Militias helped to oppress the opposition during the communist coup in February 1948, they did not necessarily know this was its purpose when they entered the organization. Later on, when they realized it, they could not disjoin the organization, as it was almost impossible with any communist organisation. (2004, 802)
Furthermore, not everyone who entered the People’s Militias even after the communist coup shared its purposes. The circumstances varied from case to case. This essay would use the case of Milan Kuta, published in the New York Times. Milan Kuta was respected oncologist when he was offered to lead the Oncology Centre in not very favourite Czech town Chomutov in 1985. In order to get this employment, he had to enter the Communist Party and provide the People’s Militias with first-aid courses. Never being active in political life before, he decided to accept the offer, as he knew it was the only way for the centre to get appropriate finances and for him to get more interesting job. However, in 1991, after the lustration law was enforced, he as the director of state-owned medical centre found himself in unpleasant situation. Coming under the category inconsistent with public employment, he had to resign from his position. (New York Times 1992) Nowadays, Milan Kuta still works in the Oncology Centre in Chomutov and is considered renowned specialist in his field.
If a role of the lustration law were simplified to being a mean inflicting punishment on collaborators with former regime for their past wrongdoings, it would be difficult to say what Milan Kuta did wrong. Furthermore, in this case, it would be also difficult to defend the lustration as a mean to build and strengthen democracy. How would democracy be endangered if Milan Kuta stayed in his post? He was not active in the Communist Party, and he never collaborated with StB. The only criticism could come from giving People’s Militias first-aid courses. First, was this inherently ‘bad’? Second, could this be compared to pursuing people and oppressing their fundamental rights? It hardly could. Thus, was not a burden of collective guilt too heavy for Milan Kuta? Not only he loosed his post in the Oncology Centre, he had to face a disdain of society. Moreover, Milan Kuta was not the only case. Many people were harmed by imprecise definition of some categories inconsistent with public employment according to the lustration law and by the principle of collective guilt, it imposed.
Finally, also the credibility of StB files was questionable. Political leaders, old as well as new, in both countries quickly realized these could be useful tools for political blackmailing. Pavel Zacek, the Czech historian from The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in Prague claims, StB files were manipulated and thousands of them possibly destroyed by StB, but also the Communist Party, People’s Militias, and army immediately after the Velvet revolution (SME 2009). This suspicion puts another question mark behind the legitimacy of the lustration law in Czechoslovakia.
The lustration law passed in 1991 in Czechoslovakia was important step in preventing leaders and collaborators with former regime from shifting newly built democracy back to dictatorship. However, it was step uncertain, unaware of direction it wanted to take and of destination, it wanted to reach. The categories of people affected by the lustration law were too broad. The public employment covered significant part of the labour market after 1989. Thus, too many people were deprived from public employment and the lustration law did not differentiate among them. A doctor giving first-aid courses to People’s Militias was in the same position as member of StB pursuing and interrogating innocent people.
The lustration law from 1991 was common basis for both countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. However, Czechs were initiators and insisted on the lustration law more than Slovaks, which proved to be true after the split of Czechoslovakia in 1993 as well. As Nadya Nedelsky mentions, while the Czech Republic kept the lustration law, prolonged its validity in 1995 and in 2000, though the president Vaclav Havel vetoed its prolongation both times, Slovakia let the lustration law expired in 1996 and never enacted it again. (2004, 76, 66) In the Czech Republic, the lustration law was amended in 2000, granting an exemption to persons born after the 1st December 1972. These, if having interest in public employment were not obliged to submit either lustration certificate or statutory declaration (Amendment of Lustration Act 2000).
There are several reasons explaining diverged approaches in dealing with communist past. Most often, scholars argue that the regime was not equally tough in both countries. Nadya Nedelsky confirms it and adds to that that the main reason why both countries were not treated in the same way was different level of dissent. According to her, low level of dissent in Slovakia led to lesser oppression of Slovaks, and consequently after the Velvet revolution to “lesser interest in transitional justice” as well. (2004, 81) After 1989, Slovak public became divided not only in this matter. Certainly, there was a public support for lustration processes. However, it was not so unite as in the Czech Republic. Significant part of Slovak public was already occupied with the idea of independent Slovak state. This one seemed to prevail.
Although, strength of regime or disunity of public in the matter of transitional justice played important role in deciding for and against the lustration law, they do not provide with sufficient reasoning of two contrary attitudes. The character of political scene of that time in both countries should not be omitted in this debate. Nadya Nedelsky mentions, even though Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar, Czech and Slovak political leader who gained their popularity from playing crucial roles in a split of Czechoslovakia, had several common features, they led both countries to completely different directions. While the government of Vaclav Klaus got the Czech Republic closer to the western democracies, authoritarian government of Vladimir Meciar, breaking fundamental human rights got Slovakia to international isolation. Even though Vaclav Klaus several times expressed his belief that looking back into past can prevent from moving forward in the present and future, he always voted for the lustration law. On the contrary, Vladimir Meciar was strongly against the lustration law, surprisingly referring to violation of human rights. Moreover, regarding Vladimir Meciar, he was accused of stealing and destroying StB files that could discredit him, as he was suspected to be collaborator of StB.
As Vaclav Klaus and Vladimir Meciar formed newly created republics for several years after the split to big extent, it is not surprising that the attitude toward lustration turned in the Czech Republic and Slovakia into completely different directions just because they had a different view on it. Nevertheless, surprisingly, different directions these two approaches took did not result in different ends. Harms the lustration law and its strict enforcement caused in the Czech Republic because of its loose definition were described above.
Nevertheless, harms its absence caused in Slovakia are not fewer. Lack of public and political interest in settling the past resulted in politics, but also church being riddled by former communists. The most known is the case of Jan Sokol, former Roman Catholic archbishop accused of collaborating with former regime. Even though, his name popped up in StB files several times, never as of hostile person, but as of candidate for collaboration, and later on as of agent, and there was found a record disclosing about whom he informed StB, he never admitted it or offered his resignation. (Nation’s Memory Institute 2004-2009) Not having the lustration law, Slovakia did not have any mechanisms to withdraw Jan Sokol from his position. Again, similarly as in the case of Milan Kuta, Jan Sokol is not an exception.
Slovakia never fully extricated from the influence of leaders and collaborators of former regime. In addition, Slovak political development after 1989 is the case in point, what crucial role the lustration law plays in democratisation processes. Slovakia with its ‘do nothing’ approach in dealing with the communist past, proved to be weak to protect its young democracy, as Vladimir Meciar’s government apparently did not comply with democratic principles.
Overall, twenty years passed since the lustration law in the Czech Republic has been in force and thirteen since in Slovakia it expired. Certainly, it played important role in strengthening democracy after 1989. A fear that leaders and collaborators with former regime could undermine was understandable. However, is this law tenable in the Czech Republic now being a part of the European Union since 2004? Is not same fear groundless? Who will redress all the damages done to reputations of unjustly accused of collaboration? Vice versa, who will redress all the damages done to dissidents in Slovakia who suffered from oppression of the communist regime, and have to see now their oppressors making public decisions? These unanswered questions did not have to be posed if either the Czech Republic or Slovakia adopted more consistent approach in dealing with their communist past.
- Czech Office for the Documentation and the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism. The Number of Casualties of the Communist Regime in Czechoslovakia from 1948 to 1989. http://web.mvcr.cz/archiv2008/policie/udv/popraveni/obeti/index.html (accessed December 4, 2009)
- David, Roman. 2004. “Transitional Injustice? Criteria for Conformity of Lustration to the Right to Political Expression”. Europe-Asia Studies. 56, no. 6: 789-812.
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- Federal Assembly of the Czechoslovak Federative Republic. 1991. Zákon, ktorým sa ustanovujú niektoré d(alšie predpoklady na výkon niektorých funkcií v štátnych orgánoch a organizáciách C(eskej a Slovenskej Federatívnej Republiky, C(eskej republiky a Slovenskej republiky. (Act on Lustration) 455/1991.
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- Nation’s Memory Institute. 2004-2009. Správa ŠtB Bratislava (The StB Report Bratislava). http://www.upn.gov.sk/regpro/zobraz.php?typ=kraj&kniha=88&strana=62&zaznam=82158 (accessed December 4, 2009)
- Nedelsky, Nadya. 2004. “Divergent Responses to a Common Past: Transitional Justice in the Czech Republic and Slovakia”. Theory and Society. 33, no. 1: 65-115.
- New York Times, national edition. 1991. A Witch Hunt in Prague? April 6. http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/06/opinion/a-witch-hunt-in-prague.html (accessed December 4, 2009)
- STEM (The Centre for Empirical Survey in the Czech Republic). STEM Political Party Preferences for November 2009, http://www.stem.cz/clanek/1884 (accessed December 4, 2009)
- TASR, “Meciar vyuzival materialy StB, tvrdi cesky historik” (Meciar abused StB material, says the Czech historian), SME, October 7, 2009.
- Williams, Kieran. 2003. “Lustration As the Securitization of Democracy in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic”. The Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics. 19, no. 4: 1-24.
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