Lustration. Not to be found in any English dictionary, the term describes the practice in post-Communist countries of exposing those who collaborated with the former regime and barring them from public office. The word derives from the Latin lustrum, a ceremony of purification for the Roman people after every five-year census. Furthermore, in Polish lustro means "mirror," and thus lustration suggests a self-examination and reckoning.
The process's intention was to clear the air, to create a sense of transparency that was woefully lacking under the Communist regime. But whether it was meant to follow in the Catholic tradition of confession and expiation or the Nuremberg process of ascribing blame has remained ill-defined in Poland and, whatever its purist intentions may have been, it has been corrupted into a political tool.
The lustration process has been underway in Poland for several years (though the Vetting Law was only enacted in 1998). Compared to its neighbours, notably the former Czechoslovakia and East Germany, Poland began late and efforts were made to adopt a less dramatic approach. Secret police files were not thrown open to public scrutiny, nor were government officials and civil servants removed wholesale from their positions. Pragmatism regarding the need to get on with the task of reconstruction overrode, at least for a time, the need for reconciliation with the past.
However, Poland's lustration, when it did begin, was ill-prepared and hastily executed, finally achieving aims opposite to those intended as the contents of the files were leaked before they had been evaluated. In its early stages, it brought down Jan Olszewski's government in 1992 after the Interior Minister, Antoni Macierewicz, was accused of tampering with information for political reasons. And more recently, Vice-Premier Janusz Tomaszewski was forced to resign merely because he was called before the lustration court.
This summer, the shadow of suspicion fell over two candidates in the upcoming presidential race. And not just any two but the incumbent and highly popular president, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and the former president and hero of the Solidarity movement, Lech Wałęsa. They are not the first prominent public figures to endure the scrutiny of the Vetting Court, and from the outset many commentators believed that the accusations were raised by persons seeking political gains by discrediting both candidates. The move backfired as both men were cleared and the debate over the purpose and the manner in which the process has been conducted was renewed—this time with calls to abandon the exercise seeming to gain ground.
The cases against
In the initial hearings against Wałęsa and Kwaśniewski (26 and 27 July), secret documents were revealed that supposedly indicated they had collaborated with the Communist secret services. In Wałęsa's case, the evidence involved questions surrounding the identity of an informant named "Bolek," who worked for the secret services from 1970 to 1976. Kwaśniewski was accused of collaboration in the 1980s, when he was a journalist, linked with an informant called "Alek." The basis of the prosecutors' case were entries in Security Service (SB) registers where the record number of agent "Alek" was the same as that assigned to Kwaśniewski in another document. Shaky ground to say the least.
Colonel Zbigniew Nowek, head of the State Protection Office (UOP, the department charged with investigating SB documents), stated on 31 July that UOP archivists had found these documents two days earlier, and yet he refused to elaborate, stating that this was the prerogative of the Vetting Court. The Sejm Committee on the SB apparently agreed and dismissed accusations by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) that the UOP had broken the law.
The Committee did, however, determine, by a three-to-one margin, that there were many procedural violations by the UOP in transferring documents to the Public Interest Commissioner. These included the papers being transferred too late and containing too many conclusions that UOP was not authorized to make. But then which came first—the evidence or the case?
Kwaśniewski was cleared after several former SB employees testified before the court. All four contradicted the charges brought by Public Interest Commissioner Bogusaław Nizieński by stating that Kwaśniewski had not been an agent and their talks with him, when he was Editor-in-Chief of Sztandar Małodych , were routine and official, conducted in accordance with the standard procedures followed by the former secret services. In his final address, Vetting Prosecutor Nizieński moved for the proceedings to be discontinued due to lack of sufficient evidence. But, very reasonably, Kwaśniewski's lawyer, Czesaław Jaworski, asked for an unambiguous verdict, and the court cleared Kwaśniewski fully the following day.
It was shown that these materials were used within Poland and abroad, and were even sent to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in 1982 in an attempt to compromise Wałęsa's candidacy (where they must have had some effect since his candidacy was put off for a year). As with Kwaśniewski's case, prosecutor Krzysztof Kauba, resorted to trying to move for a discontinuation of proceedings due to lack of evidence. The ploy didn't work any better the second time around and the court cleared Wałęsa.
The process fails
Aside from any potential legal violations there was an unmistakable strain of vindictiveness in the prosecution of the cases. During the proceedings, Kwaśniewski commented: "I hope that this matter is not a planned component of a political game by those who cannot win against me in an honest fight." After he was cleared, he was not nearly so charitable and expressed sharp criticism towards "persons manipulating documents and the time limits for sending them," saying he would "enforce accountability concerning the lawful treatment of the regulations and vetting procedure."
His lawyer, Ryszard Kalisz, didn't mince words and stated the documents supplied to the court had nothing to do with Kwaśniewski, accusing the election team of Solidarity leader Marian Krzaklewski of staging a "political provocation." Wałęsa also thinly veiled his disgust with the proceedings, wondering aloud how documents so crucial to vindicating him suddenly appeared at the very last moment.
Though there is certainly no love lost between these two men (indeed Wałęsa was quoted in the weekly Wprost (13 August) as stating "The most painful thing for me is that I was equated with President Aleksander Kwaśniewski. This constitutes the extreme lack of understanding of the history of the past 20 years. Mr Aleksander Kwaśniewski was not a secret collaborator (of the Communist-era security service) because he was an open collaborator. I was not a secret collaborator because I was an open enemy (of the Communist system)."
Their cases provoked a storm among politicians and commentators in the press. It raised questions of who was controlling the process and, more broadly and importantly, what was the sense of it all. There were clearly intentional leaks to right-wing papers, notably the weekly Gazeta Polska, which carried a story on its front page the day before Kwaśniewski's hearing that there were secret documents compromising the president. And some commentators speculated that certain factions within the AWS (Solidarity Electoral Action) were also responsible for the charges brought against Wałęsa, with the goal of eliminating him from the presidential race so that he could not split the Solidarity vote by luring away supporters of Krzaklewski.
Adam Michnik, Editor-in-Chief of Gazeta Wyborcza and no great political ally of Wałęsa, harshly decried attempts to sully Wałęsa's reputation and has long contended that the lustration process be abandoned. At a panel discussion in June concerned with dealing with a totalitarian past, Michnik asserted that states cannot hope to move forward and ensure a lasting and stable democracy and without becoming reconciled to the past. But the problem was how this was to be achieved, how to balance justice and stability; whether by following the moderating Girondist or radical Jacobinic traditions.
The most vocal and adamant supporters of the lustration process (predominantly coming from the right of the political spectrum) continue to press for the ferreting out of "lustration liars," whom they often identify as (both former and still potential) "enemies of the idea of a sovereign Poland." Too often their efforts resemble something akin to witch hunts while making anti-Communist credentials the alpha and omega of respectability and goodness in the political and social sphere. Commenting on this search for the perfect anti-Communist, Michnik has noted that Hitler was the most perfect anti-Communist.
Also puzzling, is the inclination to take SB files, or files from the former regime in general, at face value. While the system was in power, it certainly bred suspicion and distrust of authority, even for those working within it. Why put stock in the products of such a discredited system now?
Part of the confusion surrounding the lustration process can be understood by looking at the process by which Poland emerged from Communism. It was liberated gradually, through negotiation rather than mass participation, with the Round Table agreement of February 1989 between the old regime and the democratic opposition initiating a slow, measured withdrawal of Communism.
In the most direct (perhaps slightly naive) interpretation, lustration is an ongoing quest for political and personal integrity and a pure democracy. This is, unfortunately, rather like the quest for the Holy Grail. The flaws in the process have been revealed several times before over the years, but never more clearly than now. It is increasingly evident that it can be used for political ends rather than serving "justice."
As the case of Wałęsa seems to illustrate, the process is also growing cannibalistic. Politics is evolutionary and pursuing lustration only serves as an attempted distraction from more pressing current issues, and fortunately the electorate seems to be growing weary with this. It is a process that should be abandoned, certainly having outlived its vague purpose. Reconciliation with the past should not mean forgetting the past—as Michnik succinctly advocates: amnesty, not amnesia—but the time always comes when events should be left for history, rather than politicians, to judge.
Joanna Rohozińska, 11 September 2000
- Archive of articles on Poland
- Browse through the CER eBookstore for electronic books
- Buy English-language books on Central Europe through CER
- Return to CER front page