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Tuesday, 15 May, 2001, 22:56 GMT 23:56 UK
Justice or mercy for ex-communists?
Berlin Wall is scaled
East met West - but a legacy of bitterness was left behind
By central and south-east Europe analyst Gabriel Partos

The trial of Poland's last communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, may turn out to be one of the final attempts across central and eastern Europe to mete out justice to the former communist rulers.

Different countries have used different tactics to deal with the legacy of communism since it collapsed across much of the region in 1989.

Velvet Revolution, Czechoslovakia
Czechoslovakia punished virtually no communists
There have been two main trends. One was to let bygones be bygones, and not become too much concerned with punishing those responsible for communist rule.

The other - an altogether different approach - was founded on the belief that in the interests of justice, those considered guilty among the former rulers should receive their due punishment.

The first option - largely glossing over the notion of personal responsibility for communist-era crimes - has been adopted primarily in the Czech and Slovak republics, Hungary and Poland.


Vaclav Havel was among those who said that virtually everyone had, to some extent, been guilty by colluding with communist rule

In its final phase, communist rule was less harsh in these countries - though not in Czechoslovakia - than in the Balkans.

Besides, with a peaceful transition, there was a natural tendency to concentrate more on building the institutions of a democratic state and a successful market economy than to be too much fixated on past grievances.

Even some of those who believed it was important to come to terms with the past, warned against confusing that process with taking revenge.

Egon Krenz
East Germany's Egon Krenz: Guilty over Berlin Wall deaths
The dissident-turned-President of Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel, was among those who said that virtually everyone had, to some extent, been guilty by colluding with communist rule.

So Czechoslovakia's communist rulers escaped punishment, with the exception of the Prague Party chief Miroslav Stepan, who was briefly imprisoned over the police assault on students whose protests launched the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Hungary's long-standing communist leader, Janos Kadar, died while his closest associates were already negotiating with their opponents the transfer of power after the planned free elections.


By contrast with the rest of central Europe, Germany has been the most thorough in dealing with the former rulers

And in Poland, where there was much talk during 1989 about drawing a line under the failed communist experiment, General Jaruzelski was absolved by parliament from having to face trial over his imposition of martial law back in 1981.

By contrast with the rest of central Europe, Germany has been the most thorough in dealing with the former rulers - in this case, with the old East German nomenklatura.

There are several reasons for this - including Germany's post-war experience of de-Nazification; and the anger felt about those who helped maintain the division of Germany for over four decades.

Todor Zhivkov
Bulgaria's Torod Zhivkov: Guilty of embezzlement
Indeed, many of those who were tried, including the last East German leader, Egon Krenz, were found guilty of ordering the killings of those who died at the Berlin Wall while attempting to escape.

Meanwhile, several Balkan states also adopted a generally severe approach.

In Romania, President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed after a summary trial during the revolution of 1989.

But the proceedings against the former presidential couple were motivated more by fear of what they might do if they stayed alive and got back into power than out of any sense of administering justice.

Ramiz Alia
Albania's Ramiz Alia: Guilty of corruption
In Bulgaria, the long-standing communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, was convicted of embezzling vast sums of money, and he spent the first half of the 1990s under house arrest until he was freed on a subsequent appeal.

In Albania, where memories of communist rule were perhaps the most bitter, ex-leader Ramiz Alia was among those senior officials - including almost the entire former Politburo - who were found guilty of abuse of power and corruption in the early 1990s. But they were all allowed out of jail after a few years.

The experience of the former Yugoslav republics has been very different.

Yugoslavia's wars

There have been no trials of ex-communist leaders - on the contrary many of them have managed effortlessly to transfer their power into the post-communist era.

That was partly because communist rule was far more liberal in Yugoslavia than elsewhere; and partly because most of the ex-Yugoslav republics were too busy in the 1990s fighting nationalist wars to worry about past communist misdeeds.

Ironically, one of those who stayed in power well into the post-communist era, Slobodan Milosevic, is now finally in jail.

But if he goes on trial, the former Serbian strongman is likely to be facing charges of corruption and abuse of power that relate to the age of multi-party politics, not to the previous communist era.

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See also:

15 May 01 | Europe
Poland's ex-leader on trial at 77
18 Nov 99 | Europe
Prague marks Velvet Revolution
22 Mar 01 | Europe
Krenz loses Berlin Wall appeal
14 Jan 00 | Europe
East German leader jailed
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