Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 19
1 November 1999

C Z E C H   R E P U B L I C:
A Scorecard for Czech Lustration

Kieran Williams

Lustration is one of the things that sets the Czech transition to democracy apart from that in other states. While most other countries have sought political justice through criminal proceedings in the courts, with very few convictions, the Czech Republic has taken a distinctly non-judicial approach.

For the past eight years, it has operated a regime for excluding former Party functionaries and officers of and collaborators with the Communist secret police (StB) from a range of public offices: the upper reaches of the civil service, the judiciary and procuracy, the security service (BIS), army positions requiring the rank of colonel and general, the management of state-owned enterprises, the central bank, the railways, high academic positions, and the public electronic media. (Ironically, candidates for the legislature did not have to be lustrated, and ministers in Communist-era governments were not on the blacklist.) To avoid charges of revenge-seeking and legal retroactivity, lustration was sold to the federal assembly and the people in 1991 as a defence mechanism for the fragile new democracy. It was not meant to serve justice, or help the country come to terms with the past, or criminalize activities that were legal at the time, but to prevent a repetition of the Communist coup of February 1948.

The lustration law passed on 4 October 1991 lapses on 31 December 2000. With little more than a year to run, the law should now be subjected to an evaluation of its impact. What follows is, to my knowledge, the first attempt to do so; whereas the passage of the law was accompanied by an intense, often hysterical debate, upon its ratification a peculiar silence descended.

How many lustrati?

Most conspicuously absent has been any reporting of the numbers of people lustrated - "lustrati," to coin a neologism. This oversight is not to be blamed on secretive bureaucrats but on Czech journalists, who never thought to enquire.

From 1991 to 1997, if one includes the lustrations also required by the law on police service, a total of 303,504 screenings took place, of which 15,166 (five per cent) resulted in positive certificates. [NOTE 1] The overwhelming majority of applicants, therefore, were found not to be listed as an informer or employee of the StB.

Several comments on these data must be made. First, early estimates from 1992, when the bulk of lustrations occurred, suggested that half of those positively certified fell into the highly contentious category of "candidate." A candidate was someone identified by an StB recruiter as a potential agent, but who often refused to collaborate: only one-third of the 1,251 candidate cases concluded in 1989 ended in an agreement to become an informer. [NOTE 2] Yet the mere consideration of their recruitment left a thumbprint in the files, which could be misconstrued as collaboration.

These citizens could then appeal their case to an independent lustration commission, which took a closer look at the files to determine whether the person had actually informed. Of 580 verdicts studied by the commission, half were overturned. [NOTE 3] On the initiative of the commission chairman, Jaroslav Bata, and 99 legislators, the constitutional court ruled in November 1992 that candidate informers would no longer be lustrated. [NOTE 4]

Second, while lustration was designed to obviate court proceedings, hundreds of unhappy lustrati have insisted on hearings to challenge the certificates issued by the Interior Ministry. As the Prague Municipal Court, where these cases are heard, demands more evidence of collaboration than the simple appearance of a name in the reconstructed StB register, the Ministry has been handicapped by the inadmissibility of the microfiches onto which StB files had been transferred since the 1970s. With the original documents destroyed, the Ministry has lost at least 80 per cent of the cases. [NOTE 5]

Evaluating the law

By which standard can we try to evaluate the performance of the lustration law?

1. Protecting democracy from threats posed by the old regime: This was the formal motive for the law in the first place. Yet at no point in the discussion of the bill was any threat assessment produced to support the argument that the new democracy was at risk from representatives of the old regime. Since no threat was defined or quantified in 1991, or in 1995, when the law was renewed, it is impossible today to establish that lustration indeed protected democratic institutions from subversion.

2. Bringing into power a new elite untainted by the past: It is unknown how many citizens were obliged to undergo lustration, as the Interior Ministry had no catalogue of offices covered by the law. This was due to the vague wording of parts of the law, which did not define exactly what it understood by a "leading position." The data provided do not distinguish between those who had to be lustrated to hold office, and those who requested lustration for the purposes of election or to clear their names. (An upsurge of requests in 1994 can be explained by the decision of many of the 80,000 candidates standing in local-government elections to be lustrated even though the law did not require it. [NOTE 6])

Also, in the most sensitive areas, for which lustration was most expressly intended, sweeping purges had already taken place before the law came into effect: most of the 8,900 StB officers had already been dismissed from service in 1990. When the Federal Security Information Service (FBIS) was established in July 1991, around 140 of its 1,000 employees had served in the StB, but most of these had been in auxiliary, technical divisions rather than political surveillance; their numbers were whittled down over the next two-three years through recruitment and training rather than by lustration. [NOTE 7]

According to one investigation in late 1992, at the end of the main lustration wave, only 19 bureaucrats had had to end their employment in Czech ministries because of law 451. [NOTE 8] A 1995 investigation put the total at no higher than 100 dismissals from leading positions. [NOTE 9]

The majority of those positively lustrated were demoted and transferred to non-lustratable positions rather than fired, suggesting that lustration was not the bulldozer of human fates that some feared and others hoped it would be. Since there have been few studies of the Czech elite, and because the Czech bureaucracy doubled in size under the pseudo-Thatcherite Vaclav Klaus (prime minister from 1992-97), it is impossible to establish the exact causes of clerical shake-up.

Mateju's surveys from 1993-94 suggest a turnover not wildly different from that in Poland both in the economic and political spheres, despite those countries divergent policies toward the old regime. The most striking finding is that none of the Czech civil servants who were interviewed claimed to have been a functionary in the Communist Party, compared to 8.7 per cent in Poland; the sample group, however, is too small (only 52) to credit much effect to the lustration law. [NOTE 10]

3. Helping the country come to terms with the past: To avoid charges of retroactivity, the bill was not presented as a means to deal with the past, or see that justice was served. Its advocates' arguments were entirely prospective, focused on preserving the new democracy from the danger allegedly posed by citizens clinging to totalitarian values. By removing the discussion of collaboration and responsibility from public settings such as the Parliament and turning it into a bureaucratic process, the lustration law may, in fact, have helped to inhibit discussion of the past in general. The last two decades of Communist rule remain almost entirely unexplored in academic or popular history. Instead, only re-runs of Major Zeman are on offer.

4. Putting a stop to wild lustration: Before the lustration law was passed, Czechoslovakia was plagued by a number of public accusations, lodged mainly by former dissidents, directed against purported collaborators with the StB. The most spectacular incident was the televised session of the Federal Assembly in March 1991, when ten deputies were named as being listed in the register of informers. All of the named protested their innocence, and in most cases it was unclear whether they had indeed worked wittingly with the StB.

The lustration law was an alternative to this policy of outing, replacing it with a confidential, bureaucratic process and mechanisms for appeal. Since lustration commenced, there have been only a handful of cases of individuals being publicly accused of collaboration. When it has occurred, those responsible were not old StB masters dragging up pilfered files to destroy or blackmail someone, but rather committed anti-Communists like the late Vaclav Benda. On the whole, then, the lustration law has been successful in diminishing the political capital of denunciation.

The future of lustration

The lustration law lapses at the end of next year, but it will continue in a form that in many ways is legally more kosher. In June 1998, the Czech Parliament passed a law on information security, which sets out the regime for vetting officials who need access to classified material, including those dispatched to NATO. The law details a lengthy list of factors to be considered when awarding security clearances; among these is membership of any political party or association, and contact/links to former or current intelligence services, including the StB. [NOTE 11]

The ministers of the current Social Democratic government defend this clause with exactly the same prophylactic argument used eight years ago: that it is necessary to protect the institutions of state from infiltration by extremists. Since the individual's entire biography is taken into account, this system is considerably more fair, more in the style of West German streitbare Demokratie, and more compatible with international standards, since the lustration law was criticised by the ILO. Parliamentarians, ministers and the President, however, do not have to undergo security checks, just as they did not have to be lustrated, unlike, for example, a lowly clerk in the parliamentary office. Thus, lustration will continue, and it will be just as full of paradox as before.

Kieran Williams, 22 October 1999

The author is a lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London and the author of The Prague Spring and its Aftermath: Czech Politics 1968-1970.


1. These figures were supplied to the author by Jan Frolik, the director of the Czech Interior Ministry's Section for the Protection of Official Secrets, in Prague on 11 February 1998.

2. Marek Pecenka, Encyclopedie spionaze ze zakulisi tajnych sluzeb, zejmena Statni bezpecnosti (Prague: Libri, 1993), p. 176.

3. Agenda 2000 - Commission Opinion on the Czech Republics Application for Membership of the European Union. DOC/97/17. Brussels, 15 July 1997, p. 11.

4. Knihovna Parlamentu Ceske Republiky, Rozhodnuti Ustavniho soudu, Nalez c. NA03/92.

5. By early 1995, the ministry had already lost 100 of 120 cases. See Martin Schmartz, "Lustrace: svar minulosti s budoucnosti," Mlada fronta Dnes, 16 February 1995.

6. Lidove noviny, 20 August 1994.

7. Lidove noviny, 10 February 1998.

8. Jan Brabec, Jaroslav Spurny, and Jindrich Sidlo, "Buldozer lidskych osudu," Respekt, no. 48, 30 November 1992. Judiciary casualties: about ten per cent were dismissed, and most were later offered the chance to return.

9. Vladimir Mlynar and Richard Stencl, Ocista na pokracovani, Respekt, no. 29, 17 July 1995.

10. Petr Mateju and Nelson Lim, "Who Has Gotten Ahead After the Fall of Communism?," Czech Sociological Review, vol. 3 (1995), no.2, pp. 117-36; Petr Mateju, "Elite research in the Czech Republic," in Heinrich Best and Ulrike Becker, eds, Elites in Transition: Elite Research in Central and Eastern Europe (Opladen: Leske and Budrich, 1997), pp. 61-76; Petr Mateju and Eric Hanley, "Die Herausbildung oekonomischer und politischer Eliten in Ostmitteleuropa," in Magarditsch A. Hatschikjan and Franz-Lothar Altmann, eds, Eliten im Wandel: Politische Fuehrung, wirtschaftliche Macht und Meinungsbildung in neuen Osteuropa (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schoeningh, 1998), pp. 145-71.

11. Vladimir Mikule, ed., Zakon c. 148/1998 Sb., o ochrane utajovanych skutecnosti a o zmene nekterych zakonu (Prague: Codex, 1998), p. 39.



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