Many Nations Strive to Square Accounts With Old Oppressors
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The constraints on radical social reconstruction are most graphically illustrated in the nations of the former Soviet bloc, most of which are now run by members of previous Communist regimes.Skip to next paragraph
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An ``unmistakable moral line'' separates Communist Party members from party leaders who were responsible for decades of repression and brutality, notes George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. But as a practical matter, ``if you have a very fragile democracy and lots of economic problems, it adds a considerable burden to undertake the kind of government-sanctioned social reconstruction'' that would be required to bring former leaders to justice, says Mr. Weigel.
The cases of Russian President Boris Yeltsin and former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki illustrate a pervasive phenomenon: that transitions out of communism were led by people who had roots in the Communist past and who have thus had little disposition to launch witch-hunts against former colleagues.
``The problem was that the dissidents who came to power after the fall of the Communists were mostly people who had had some ties with the party in the past,'' says Anne Applebaum, deputy editor of the London Spectator.
And not only personalities but ideas have lingered on - a reluctance to privatize economies, for example - blurring the fault line between the Communist and post-Communist eras.
The continuity of ideas has been paralleled in the absence of historical memory.
Unlike Germans who were brought face-to-face with Hitler's misdeeds after World War II, many citizens of former Communist nations have little awareness of the magnitude of the repression imposed on them and therefore little desire for retribution.
Successor regimes in the formerly Communist countries, meanwhile, were under pressure to play down ``decommunization'' programs because of fears that instability could lead to a reemergence of the kind of ultranationalist, right-wing parties that came to power in the 1930s.
The exception to the rule was East Germany, where the files of the secret police - the Stasi - were opened to public inspection, leading to dismissal and humiliation of hundreds of collaborators. More typical was former Czechoslovakia, where a 1991 law merely barred former party officials above a certain rank from holding high office for five years.
In Roman Catholic Poland and elsewhere, an avoidance of retribution has been nourished by religious beliefs that stress the morality of accommodation. Among blacks in South Africa, ``ubuntu,'' a cultural disposition toward forgiveness and compassion, has spared the nation from bloodletting following four decades of racial segregation enforced - often brutally - by a white regime.
In the end, managing the transition out of authoritarian rule requires the most difficult of trade-offs: between preserving political stability for democracy and protecting human rights.
``Elected leaders must sometimes make a hard choice between the survival of the democratization process and the principles on which they based their campaign for a return to democratic rule,'' Jamal Benomar says.
* Next week's Global Report: How Chile and other nations also dealt with ex-dictators.