May 17th 2007 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition
The Polish government is all tangled up in the past
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OUTSIDERS like to decry Poland's ruling twins, sometimes as buffoons, sometimes as bloodthirsty inquisitors. Both characterisations of Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, respectively president and prime minister, are unfair, but each contains a grain of truth. The twins' foreign policy has been inept, sometimes comically so. And, until it was struck down by the constitutional court last week, their vetting law seemed not only sweeping, but downright sinister.
Its aim was to screen 700,000 people for past collaboration with the communist-era secret police, including not only journalists and academics but also some (previously vetted) anti-communist politicians, such as Bronislaw Geremek, a former foreign minister. Mr Geremek refused to complete another vetting declaration, thereby risking his seat in the European Parliament. This prompted huge criticism: Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a Green colleague, said it was like “ordering a Jew in a concentration camp to submit a statement that he hasn't collaborated with the Nazis.”
The Kaczynskis' initial reaction was to counter-attack. At one point they and their allies even seemed to challenge the constitutional court's legitimacy. In a bizarre intervention on the day of its ruling, a deputy from the ruling Law and Justice party, Arkadiusz Mularczyk, demanded a delay, producing hurriedly obtained secret-police files on some of the judges. Now the government has accepted the court's ruling, which guts the central provisions of the law. Journalists and academics are excluded, and the penalty for non-compliance—a ten-year ban from a person's profession—was also struck down.
This has avoided a constitutional crisis, but left the question of what to do with Poland's millions of locked-up secret-police files, which occupy 80km (50 miles) of shelf-space. Secrecy allows the wicked to pose as blameless, and offers much scope for blackmail. The emerging consensus is to replace the vetting law with an open-archive policy. One idea is to allow access by everyone to everything. Yet the files contain much private information, accurate or not, on things like medical conditions or sexual indiscretions.
So a more likely answer will be to open the files to public scrutiny with non-political material expunged. But by whom? Some suspect that the whole subject will now get bogged down in the question of reforming the management of the archives, delaying embarrassing revelations for many years.
Behind the row lie some sharply different views of history. The Kaczynskis believe that, after communism collapsed in 1989, the transition to democracy was botched—maybe even sabotaged—by elements from the old regime. They yearn to bust the crony-capitalist arrangements that have grown up between business, officialdom, the media and leftist politicians. Mr Geremek's 20-year stint in the opposition counts for little: how, critics ask, did he get the juicy job of running the Polish Cultural Centre in Paris in 1960, at the height of the cold war, without having ties to Polish (or Soviet) intelligence?
Others say that the Kaczynskis themselves are prisoners of the suspicious, confrontational mindset engendered by totalitarianism. Justice is one thing; revenge another. Since 1989 Poland has tamed inflation and built a thriving market economy. Now it needs to modernise its public services and play a constructive role in Europe. Ending the heated controversy over the vetting law offers the best chance of concentrating on that.
Friday, May 18, 2007