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.

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.

The men and women being investigated, more often than not, were threatened into agreeing to serve as unpaid secret police agents, to tell tales about friends and co-workers. Some claim they had no choice if they were to go abroad, get a good job, or get into a university. Many claim they told nothing that was not already public knowledge. Others claim their files were falsified and they never agreed to anything. Some former secret police officials even admit listing names and forging signatures to make their quotas.

The files remained with the police - making them easy to falsify or destroy, if they were accurate to begin with. In Walesa's case, officials testified the police had a group in the early 1980s charged solely with creating a paper trail to prevent him from getting the Nobel Peace Prize. They failed. But the damning evidence that he was an agent code-named "Bolek," stayed in his file. In Kwasniewski's case, documents suddenly appeared about a secret agent code-named "Alex;" but there's no evidence that he was that Alex.

Career secret-police officials are now recruited into Poland's new security service. To protect them and the institution itself, the special prosecutor has won the right to hold secret trials of those accused of lying. That way, identities of officials who made their money in the secret police are protected. Only the accused are left unprotected.

The right runs the risk, in passing the law, of ousting its own politicians. The Communists needed to know what the opposition or those abroad were doing. That's where they used most agents. The party rule actually was that its officials were not to be recruited as agents.

The final irony is that these trials, almost, are done the old Communist way. Only the police can see the files until the new Institute of National Memory collects and opens the millions of police files created from four decades of Communism. Then, the law says anyone listed in the old files and Rolodexes as an agent - however falsely - will have no right to see his file. Even the most prominent of the accused are limited to reviewing their files with their lawyers under police surveillance and then leaving their notes in police safes. They can call witnesses, but the only specialists allowed to testify about tests of the paper and authenticity of the signatures are from the new security services.

To date, requests for open trials have been denied. Leaks are the norm; but the defendants have no right to speak to anyone, especially the press, to counter these leaks. Even if they are cleared, the gag order remains until the "Spokesman for the Public Interest" agrees not to file an appeal.

In the end, anti-Communist attacks create a Fellini-esque situation. Few want this to be the focus of politics, least of all the opposition targets of the old secret police. But the right wing yelled loud and long enough for those in the center and even former Communists to give in just to keep them under control. The vetting of public officials has not uncovered any great new scandals. Even the worst stories come nowhere near the horrors of Latin America's military regimes, the Soviet gulags, or South Africa's apartheid regime. If anything, it proves how trivial the system was. Twisting backward hasn't secured democracy. People's concern with the present keeps democracy in place.

*Jane L. Curry is an associate professor of political science at Santa Clara University, in Santa Clara, Calif.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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