Justice and the East European Revolutions

09/21/2013 08:44 am ET | Updated Nov 21, 2013

The debate continues over whether the people of East-Central Europe have benefitted economically from the post-1989 transition. But this discussion of economic winners and losers largely ignores a key demand of the people in the region. Yes, they wanted bananas and travel to the West and propaganda-free media. But they also wanted an end to the injustices of the Communist era.

Communism promised equality: an end of the class system and a future in which everyone would live as brothers and sisters. It soon became obvious, however, that some brothers and sisters were more equal than others. The emergence of a new class -- the nomenklatura -- was a direct repudiation of the egalitarian ethos of Communism. This elite, and their children, enjoyed better education, greater opportunities for travel, nicer homes and cars, access to hard currency and jobs at the top.

Of course, the nomenklatura didn't simply enjoy economic privileges. The Communist elite had political power that they deployed to silence critics and preserve their own position in society. Thus was perpetuated the misrule of law. Those "living in truth," as Vaclav Havel liked to put it, also ended up spending at least part of the time living in jail.

The changes in 1989 promised an end to the injustices of the previous era. But when that promise appeared to be broken -- and the old elite either regained political office through elections or increased their material wealth through privatization -- the newly enfranchised citizens of East-Central Europe grew angry, even if their own material position improved.

"In my first studies of post-conflict societies in different parts of the world, I've learned that what people want and expect from revolutions and regime changes is not the immediate rise in living standards but a sense of justice," Jan Urban told me in an interview in his office at New York University's campus in the heart of Prague's Old Town.

He says:

Here is where we failed terribly. Allowing the Communists not to part with their criminal past, allowing them to capture up to 20 percent of the electorate -- meaning that more-or-less democratic parties had to work in coalitions that would embrace a larger portion of the electorate -- was a strategic mistake and we have to live with it.

Urban was a leading dissident prior to 1989 and a founder of Civic Forum. He decided early on not to pursue a political career. Rather, he supported the professionalization of political life in Czechoslovakia. He put his hopes in the creation of a new corps of young civil servants trained abroad, a project that never quite happened.

Instead, the new political elite embraced a different method of breaking with the past. It enacted a lustration law -- literally, "purification" -- to ensure that no one in public life had connections to the repressive structures of the Communist period. Here too a desire for justice -- though sometimes simply revenge -- motivated the supporters of the new legislation.

"I think lustration was one of the worst methods of dealing with the past," Urban told me.

First, it gave legitimacy to the Communist secret police archives. It's kind of funny when you declare the secret police a criminal organization and then you use its archives for the purposes of parliamentary democracy building. It took us 17 years to take secret police archives from the political property of the state. Also, what you need is trust in the rule of law. Lustration was a kind of clerical operation: your name appears here meaning you, according to a given list, cannot hold certain positions. There is no judicial attitude in it. There is no fair trial.

Some countries, in the wake of abrupt political change, embarked on truth-and-reconciliation processes. But in the Czech Republic, only partial truths have prevailed and virtually no reconciliation at all. "We don't want truth," Urban concluded. "We want punishment."

The Interview

In the Romanian situation, the Bulgarian situation, even today people talk about the revolution that in fact didn't happen. There was a carry-over in many places of the same people in power along with a change in the name of the party. Assets were transferred and economic power was retained. But that seemed to be a scenario that was avoided here.

Not really. We haven't even forced the Communist Party to change its name, and we have the same Stalinist or neo-Stalinist faces. It was just the change of guard with the younger generation. When you go onto their websites and see their ideological conferences you see that one of the speakers is the last leader of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia talking the same rubbish like 35 years ago. The same happened with privatization, and this is what people criticized the most.

It's true that the Communist party retained the same name but it didn't have anything like the power that, for instance, the Bulgarian Socialist Party did in the first elections.

Right. But in my first studies of post-conflict societies in different parts of the world, I've learned that what people want and expect from revolutions and regime changes is not the immediate rise in living standards but a sense of justice. Here is where we failed terribly. Allowing the Communists not to part with their criminal past, allowing them to capture up to 20 percent of the electorate -- meaning that more-or-less democratic parties had to work in coalitions that would embrace a larger portion of the electorate -- was a strategic mistake and we have to live with it.

Do you think that lustration -- a process of regulating the participation of former Communist Party officials in the public sphere -- was not sufficient in satisfying people's desires?

Definitely not. I think lustration was one of the worst methods of dealing with the past. First, it gave legitimacy to the Communist secret police archives. It's kind of funny when you declare the secret police a criminal organization and then you use its archives for the purposes of parliamentary democracy building. It took us 17 years to take secret police archives from the political property of the state. Also, what you need is trust in the rule of law. Lustration was a kind of clerical operation: your name appears here meaning you, according to a given list, cannot hold certain positions. There is no judicial attitude in it. There is no fair trial.

It's an assumption of guilt.

It's an assumption of guilt that may even be correct in 95 percent of the cases. But still there were so many weird methods of how to break people and turn them into secret police informants or agents. With lustration you didn't look into those individual cases or individual reasons. You didn't look at what harm, if any, was eventually done. I see it as highly unfair.

I haven't gotten to Poland yet, but I understand that Adam Michnik was very concerned that false information from these files would be used in a political way.

It's just one angle. The most damaging is this lack of a procedure: the lack of a fair trial.

Is there anywhere in the region where you think this issue was handled right?

It is not by chance that not one of the post-Communist countries had the courage to use the truth-and-reconciliation concept. We don't want truth. We want punishment.

I interviewed Roland Jahn in Berlin and I asked him that question: he disagreed. He thought it was virtually impossible to actually push people in East Germany to have the reconciliation process.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.