Friday, August 11, 2006

Screening Poland's past

We've got a little list

Aug 10th 2006 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition

Cleaning up Poland's communist past is a messy business

SLEAZE, pervasive and corrosive, is either the biggest problem in Poland, or a myth created by paranoid bigots. For the centre-right government, spies old and new, with their deep connections to the communist past and crooked business chums, must be rooted out of public life. For much of the country's elite, that sounds dangerously like a witch-hunt.

Poland has largely dodged the issue of collaboration with the old secret police. That reflects the way in which Polish communism crumbled in the summer of 1989—by negotiation, and not abruptly. Later that year, in countries such as the then Czechoslovakia and East Germany, communism simply collapsed. In those places, screening was tough initially but, as a result, the issue has gone away.

Under Poland's current, limited, law, only around 27,000 holders of senior public office are subject to vetting. They must sign a statement that they never co-operated with the communist secret police; this is then checked—as far as possible—with the huge intelligence archives now run by the Institute of National Remembrance, known in Polish as the IPN.

Not everything in the IPN files is true—and many things that are true are not in them. Their selective use is poisonous, destroying careers and lives. Last year Bronislaw Wildstein, a prominent journalist then working at the IPN, leaked an unofficial list of up to 240,000 names contained in its files. This gave no indication of whether those cited were victims of the regime's surveillance or collaborators in it.

The case of Zyta Gilowska, finance minister until June, highlights the system's flaws. A secret police file seemed to incriminate her, so she was fired from the government. But once she ceased to be a public figure, the vetting court said it was unable to hear her case, or even tell her what she was accused of. She has now appealed, looks likely to be found innocent, and may even return to the government.

For Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twins who are respectively Poland's president and prime minister, reforming all this borders on an obsession. The governing coalition is pushing through parliament a new law on vetting that will screen up to 500,000 people for contacts with communist-era secret services. Depending on how it is interpreted, the new law will include most civil servants, teachers, academics and managers of state firms. The IPN will take over from the court.

But the new bill has some big drawbacks. One is that it is poorly drafted. It seems not to distinguish between those who were contacted by the secret police but declined to co-operate, and those who collaborated actively. In effect, that creates a presumption of guilt. People risk losing their jobs if they cannot prove their innocence of a charge based on elderly files, peppered with forgeries and exaggerations. Another worry is that vetting may reveal snooped data on juicy but irrelevant matters such as personal gossip.

The lower house of parliament has hurriedly passed the new bill; the upper chamber is likely to amend it, to try to protect victims of totalitarianism from suffering twice. According to Jan Olszewski, a former opposition activist and prime minister, the parliamentary deputies who drafted the bill were mostly too young to have had much contact with communist rule. Senators, on the other hand, are older, and include more ex-dissidents who understand the dilemmas and contradictions of life under totalitarianism. Bogdan Borusewicz, the leader of the upper house and a founder of the Solidarity trade union that toppled communism, suggests starting from scratch: correcting the lower house's bill, he says, would be like “changing a cow into a horse”.

Whether bovine or equine, the bill is belated. Exposing communist-era collaboration might have been useful in the 1990s. But nowadays the corruption and abuse of power that have flourished in the post-communist era are a bigger issue.

To tackle that problem, the government has set up a powerful new anti-corruption agency. It is also screening all 2,000-odd officers of the WSI, the military intelligence service. This is the biggest bugbear: a lawless, unreformed communist-era bureaucracy, the government says, that has escaped all political control.

This week the deadline expired for WSI officers to confess to past misdeeds, including leaking secrets, hindering criminal proceedings, using violence, illegally influencing the authorities or having unauthorised contacts with businessmen or journalists. Once checked and absolved, their authors may then join the new military intelligence services to be formed on October 1st. Some worry that this is all too quick, too politicised, and may disrupt Poland's military security.

Cleaning up public life in Poland is a fine aim. Having waited so long, it would be a pity not to do it properly.

1 comment:

Edward Lucas said...

Yes I agree with most things in this posting. It is better late than never, and it is a scandal that screening has been so postponed.

All I am saying is that the current law is badly drafted and may not do what its supporters want.