17 March 2007

Lustration in Poland, riots in Hungary

A new legislation has been passed in Poland, aimed at dealing with the Communist legacy, a cause dear to the heart of the Kaczynski brothers, President and Prime Minister of the Republic.

The purpose is to weed out former collaborators with the secret police, who have since lied about their activity. As Al-Jazeera puts it:
Former Polish spies who attempt to falsify their past will be punished for commiting a crime and could risk not working in their field for up to 10 years under Thursday's new law - said to involve about 300,000 Poles.

The law requires hundreds of thousands of Poles in positions of authority born before 1972, including academics, journalists and state company executives, to state in writing whether they co-operated with the spy network of the Soviet-backed government before Poland overthrew communism in 1989.
The BBC suggests that it might involve 700,000 people. Whichever way one looks at it, many will be caught up.

It sounds like a very good idea. After all, Poland like other post-Communist countries has to face up to the facts of 40 years of Communism and what it did to individuals and society as a whole.

The question is whether this is quite the right way of going about it or whether this is just an obsession of the present rulers whose idea of what is right for Poland appears to be somewhat strange.

In the first place, it seems that the ultimate arbiter of what is true will be the files of the secret police, not precisely the most truthful documents in the world.

In the second place, this will create new layers of bureaucracy, something Poland can ill afford at the moment.
A national fact-finding and prosecuting authority, the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), will collect all the statements, investigate each case individually and prosecute anyone who spied or is found to be lying.

Employers will need to verify staff have been vetted and millions of documents from the communist state security apparatus that ran Poland for four decades after world war two will be available for scrutiny by the press.

Making a false statement will be a crime punishable with a ban from public life of up to 10 years - a term that would mean many Poles could never work again in their chosen profession.
Presumably, making a true statement to the effect that you did work for the security services will also be punishable with loss of job, which would not matter so much if there were other jobs, preferably in the private sector, available. But there are not. Every year tens of thousands of economically active Poles leave the country to find work somewhere else.

In the third place, Communism quite deliberately involved as many people as possible in its network. Differentiating between those who had been forced to report what their colleagues were up to because they were afraid of losing their jobs and those who actively worked for the security services by choice (having defined what choice is in those circumstances) is not going to be easy, especially, as I pointed out above, those documents were designed to confuse and muddy waters as much as possible.

What the system will bring back is that jolly old Communist tradition, the denunciation. Is this quite what people fought for when they tried to climb out from under the rubble of the Communist system?

At least this will be one difficult subject that Chancellor Merkel will not have to discuss in her visit to the Polish President. There will be plenty of others: the question of the European constitution, which, it is assumed for no very good reasons, the Poles will oppose; the question of Polish meat exports to Russia (though it is not clear what Merkel can do about that); and the question of American anti-missile system, which will involve bases in Poland and other East European countries, as well as Britain. Germany and France do not approve as this, once again, cuts across their beloved European defence identity.

The latest news is that President Kaczynski has agreed to sign “a key declaration allowing for more negotiation on a European Constitution”, whatever that may mean in practical terms. At any rate, that fiftieth birthday will not be spoilt by the recalcitrant Poles.

Another thorny question is the various German demands for reparation for what we would now call “ethnic cleansing” at the end of World War II from parts of Poland but especially Silesia, Prussia, Brandenburg and Pomerania. These areas had been given to Poland as a kind of compensation for the loss of lands in the east to the Soviet Union. These are now in Ukraine. Poland became somewhat bigger but was almost bodily transposed to the west.

There is no question that the ethnic cleansing was carried out under horrendous conditions, which were justified in everybody’s minds by the conditions imposed by the Germans on Poland and those parts of the Soviet Union they had occupied. But now, there are stirrings among those who were children at the time and their descendants.

The post-war settlements of 1919 and 1945 will bother us all for some time to come and now that all or almost all the countries in question are in the European Union, the problems have become internal ones.

Meanwhile, another troublesome new member, Hungary, has decided to do a spot of rioting again. This was considerably smaller than what happened in October of last year and the police appears to have refrained from using steel batons and rubber bullets, staying with tear gas and water cannons.

Nevertheless, eight people were injured, mostly police officers and 56 were arrested. The rioting came at the end of the national holiday, March 15, though there had been a certain amount of trouble before.

March 15 is the anniversary of the the start of Hungary’s war of independence from the Austrian empire in 1848 – 49 and, as such, is celebrated by all groups. It is a national holiday but its symbols are the familiar tricolour and the Kossuth emblem.

In many ways, this ought to be the celebration of the more liberal nationalism of Hungary, a country, which is justly proud of the fact that it has had a Diet for more centuries (except when it was suppressed by the Austrians) than most Continental countries and, as it happens, produced a document that was very similar to Magna Carta in 1222, the Golden Bull. (Sadly, the subsequent destruction of the country by the Mongols prevented the supposedly inevitable development of democracy.)

This year, like all years, there were celebrations for March 15, though there had been warnings that trouble might ensue. In the first place, trouble consisted of hundreds of people whistling, booing and jeering the Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, he, who, as our readers will recall, actually admitted to lying all day and every day to the electorate in order to win the last election.

There was also trouble when the Mayor of Budapest, Gábor Demszky, an ally of Gyurcsány’s tried to address a meeting on March 15 Square by the statue of the great Hungarian poet Sándor Petöfi.

The opposition party FIDESZ held a peaceful and extremely large rally of about 200,000 people. At all these events, the Prime Minister’s resignation was loudly and forcefully called for. Caboodle.hu gives an hour by hour and even more frequent analysis of what happened.

It seems that late in the afternoon news spread that the police had arrested György Budaházy who had been accused of being one of the organizers of the riotous demonstrations of last October and who has been supposedly in hiding ever since was arrested. One cannot help wondering about the timing of the police finding him and arresting him. On March 15? Well, it may be true.

Between 800 and 1,000 young and not so young people then fought battles with the police near to where they thought Budaházy was being held, though eventually, they seem to have gone home on the last metro. There were some reports of journalists being beaten up by the demonstrators but it is not clear how accurate that is.

All in all, something of a muddle, though, this time Viktor Orbán, the leader of FIDESZ has come out quite well.

The investigation into police behaviour last October is still going on.