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Last Updated: Monday, 21 August 2006, 11:22 GMT 12:22 UK
Secret files haunt Eastern Europe
By Jan Repa
BBC Central Europe analyst

Romanian soldiers unload Securitate files, March 2005
Only part of the vast Securitate archive has been made public
Romania is the latest country of the former Soviet bloc to undergo an anguished debate about how best to tackle the legacy of communist-era snooping and denunciation.

Romania's President Traian Basescu has denied on television ever having signed an agreement to collaborate with the communist-era secret police, the Securitate.

He said he simply wrote routine "reports" in his capacity as the captain of a large Romanian merchant ship.

Reports say that a secret police file on Mr Basescu has gone missing.

Exposing collaborators

The term commonly used in the ex-communist countries to describe the process of exposing former secret police collaborators - "lustration" - derives from the ancient Roman word for a ritual purification.

We are all in this together - those who created this regime; those who accepted it in silence; and all of us who subconsciously became accustomed to it
Vaclav Havel

A spiritually healthy society, it has been argued, needs to know its grubby secrets. People who once spied on colleagues, friends and family members should, at the very least, be known - as should the identity of their minders and paymasters.

Secret files, it is claimed, can be used to blackmail individuals in positions of responsibility. They encourage the survival of all sorts of cliques held together by a shared complicity.

Unreliable files

The contrary argument is that old secrets are best kept well alone.

Secret police files, by their very nature, are unreliable. Many have been doctored or survive only as copies. There are more urgent tasks facing the new democracies than raking over past guilt, it is argued.

People who spent decades living under East European communism are so steeped in its habits and ethos that the best thing to do is to wait for them to retire or to die off. A couple of decades from now - who will care anyway?

Latvia's President, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, recently vetoed plans to publish the names of several thousand suspected KGB agents and informers on the grounds that some might have been deliberately falsified by the Russians to sow discord.

People look at bags with Stasi documents torn in pieces, September 1999
The Stasi files which were destroyed have been painstakingly restored

The one-time dissident and former Czech President Vaclav Havel - whose own views on lustration have chopped and changed over the years - expressed the dilemma thus:

"We are all in this together - those who created this regime; those who accepted it in silence; and all of us who subconsciously became accustomed to it."


One of the ironies of the lustration process is that one-time membership of the Communist Party apparatus is not in itself a bar to holding office in the present era.

Then there are those - notably in the ex-Soviet republics themselves - who still feel nostalgic about the old days. Like President Vladimir Putin, who has described the break-up of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th Century.

The most thoroughgoing exposure of former communist secret police informers occurred in what had been East Germany - where an estimated one in eight adults had been involved.

Having more or less annexed East Germany to their own state, the West Germans had little sympathy for local interest and sensitivities.

However, one effect of this has been a persistent feeling of disempowerment - almost of being colonised - on the part of former East German citizens.

Robust approach

The Czechs, who had had to put up with a similarly hardline communist leadership for years, also adopted a robust approach.

But the Czech situation has its inconsistencies, too. For instance, while it is a criminal offence to display communist symbols in public, the communists continue to be the third largest party in parliament.

Among the more forgiving countries, until recently, have been Poland and Hungary - both having achieved a transition to democracy through peaceful negotiation.

However, even in Hungary former Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy was forced to resign after a newspaper exposed him four years ago as a former secret police officer.

And Poland's centre-right government, in power since last autumn, is pushing legislation through parliament which would dramatically extend the numbers and categories of people subject to vetting - including local councillors and school headteachers.

'Conspiracy of forgetting'

The dilemma not only affects the former communist states.

West Germany's administration - at the federal and provincial level - was full of old Nazis for years after World War II.

Former officials of the French wartime collaborationist Vichy regime continued to make careers under the post-war republic, amid a general consensus - only broken in recent years - that certain subjects should not be gone into too deeply.

Spain's "conspiracy of forgetting" around the legacy of the Civil War and the Franco dictatorship is only now being abandoned, with the exhumation of mass graves and government-sponsored commemorations.

Secret police row grips Romania
17 Aug 06 |  Europe
Polish priest admits spy claims
12 Jul 06 |  Europe
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13 May 06 |  Entertainment
Czech schools revisit communism
01 Nov 05 |  Europe

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