Boxing shadows in Poland
The Communists in Poland and their secret agents are alive and well - in the minds of right-wing politicians - more than a decade after Communism fell. Although most of these politicians were hardly heroes of the fight against Communist rule, their attacks grow more stringent every time a policy fails or their dismal standing in public opinion dips another point. But this stance does not let politicians and governments do what people want them to do - govern and solve problems.Skip to next paragraph
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Last month, two Polish candidates had their campaigns for the October presidential election interrupted by charges they'd been agents of the old Communist secret police. One is Solidarity hero and former President Lech Walesa. The other, the current, highly popular President and former Communist official Alexander Kwasniewski. The issue? Not whether they were part of the secret police, but just whether they lied about being agents.
The 1997 law, enacted to end the political controversy over how to handle the Communist past, requires that officials admit to having been agents of the Communist secret police. They can be denied their posts for not admitting to it, but not actually for having been police agents. Now, investigations and secret trials of accused officials have cast aspersions on these two former presidents and on an array of government ministers and legislators, as well as judges, lawyers, and lesser government officials.
For all the fuss and fury, most Poles don't care. In surveys, they charge the Communist system with hurting the country; punishing the old Communists and secret police is at the bottom of their lists of important issues. Candidates who admit to having been secret police agents have won their elections. Indeed, the reformed Communists, now Social Democrats, are Poland's most popular party. The losers in public opinion polls and elections are those who attack the Communists.
Vocal opposition to the law and the whole process of investigating elected and appointed leaders comes from men like Adam Michnik who served jail terms and had their families' lives disrupted because of their fight against Communism. These Solidarity intellectuals took over the government when Communism first fell, hoping to draw a thick line and focus on the future.
Enacting the law involves trusting the secret police and their records even as it attacks them. The process takes Poland back to some of the ways of Communist justice. At this point, no one really hopes to bar Communists from public office as the Czechs and Germans did right after Communism fell. It's too late, and besides, former Communists have proven to be good democrats. Other politicians rank them as the most effective parliamentarians in this first post-Communist decade.
Justifications for the law begin with the claim that, now that Poland is in NATO, politicians who were agents run the risk of being blackmailed. It's not clear who would blackmail them or why NATO can't be trusted to do the vetting. The other justification is that the right can't be controlled without a law, that attacks by the far right would otherwise go wild, doing more damage than a formal process.