Why the post-Communist transitions of Eastern European governments hold some surprising lessons for the fledgling democracies in Egypt and Tunisia.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — If anyone can understand the rush of change that revolutionaries in Egypt and Tunisia are experiencing right now, it’s their counterparts in post-communist Eastern Europe.
This region gorged on change, evolving — painfully — from dictatorship to democracy. After decapitating the leadership, East Europeans know what comes next. The purge. It’s begun in Egypt and Tunisia, with a despised target in the crosshairs: secret police.
For the Egyptian dissidents and Islamists persecuted or even tortured by the State Security Investigative Service, Hosni Mubarak’s Feb. 11 abdication wasn’t enough. Real liberation came the weekend of March 5, when they went after the regime’s “planning brain” and most feared weapon: its 500,000-strong intelligence agency. Word had spread that State Security bosses were shredding files and burning other incriminating evidence. Thousands of men stormed past security cordons in Alexandria and Cairo to scour secret-police headquarters for proof of human-rights abuses.
Not to be outdone, Tunisia dismantled its State Security Department altogether on March 7. The interim Interior Ministry said the aim was to foster a “climate of confidence and transparency … between the security services and the citizen.” Several days later, Egypt announced it was symbolically renaming its state security service, as a “national security” agency with a dramatically narrowed focus — just terrorism.
Amid the new drama that unfolds every day in Egypt and Tunisia, these swipes at the regime’s tormentors stand out as an early test of how truly committed reformists are to their own calls for democracy and human rights.
Vigilante justice is one thing. Transitional justice is another: Not only a break with the past, but the creation of a new political culture based on civic freedoms and rule of law. To see this kind of transition firsthand, North Africans need only peer across the Mediterranean and study what post-authoritarian Eastern Europe has undergone during the past two decades.
Nudged forward by a desire to join the European Union, new elites tackled the question of what to do with the key perpetrators of the ancien régime — plus all the loyal foot soldiers who propped it up.
The key question: Beyond the secret police, how deeply to cut into the old elites, public administration, bureaucracy, courts, economy, army and regular police, even in the media and universities?
In each country, it began with lustration: a legalized “controlled purge” of collaborators. These lustration laws — the name derived from lustrum, the purification rituals of ancient Greece and Rome — were forged in the newly democratic parliaments of Eastern Europe. Crucially, though, they were hammered out by all factions — even the vanquished communists, by then reconstituted as socialists.
“This is not revenge, where you purge because you’re in the position to,” says political scientist Lavinia Stan, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice and a Romanian who was raised under the repressive rule of Nicolae Ceausescu. “You want to send a message: This is a new regime, and we’re so committed to democracy that we give [former loyalists] a stake in the new system. Otherwise, you’ll have insurgency.”
While the terms “transitional justice” and “lustration” are relatively new to the human-rights lexicon, the concept is not. Experts trace its origins to the de-Nazification of post-war Germany and the Nuremberg Trials. Yet the postwar period is also considered a prime example of “victor’s justice,” when the United States and its allies imposed their will on Germany and Japan.
While such a situation is quite different from where a country’s own people overthrow the regime — as in Eastern Europe, Egypt, and Tunisia — it nevertheless set a benchmark for one way to handle the messiness of such transitions.
Six decades later, the application of victor’s justice during the “de-Baathification” of Iraq was widely panned as over-zealous and counterproductive. Some 400,000 army and police officials were swiftly booted into the streets, and many went on to form the heart of myriad insurgent groups.
More successful transitions create a forum to end impunity for the worst abusers and extract apologies for excesses of the former system, says David Tolbert, president of the International Center for International Justice.
“It’s important to have a confrontation with the past, hold accountable those responsible, have the victims’ suffering heard and recognized, then reform institutions so it doesn’t happen again,” says Tolbert, who has participated in a tribunal in Lebanon, the Khmer Rouge Trials, and as deputy chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Recent years have seen transitional justice embodied in host of truth and reconciliation commissions, most famously in post-apartheid South Africa, but also everywhere from Argentina and Guatemala, to Rwanda and Sierra Leone, to Cambodia and East Timor.
No two transitions are the same, and observers compare them with great caution. Yet post-authoritarian Eastern Europe seems the closest parallel for Egypt and Tunisia. At least Eastern Europe had tasted a democratic spirit of the interbellum between World Wars I and II, and a second time, before local Communists — backed by Moscow and its occupying Soviet forces — crushed the postwar resistance.
Egypt and Tunisia — and Libya, for that matter — can draw from no such historic memory. Their countries, even through the post-colonial period, passed from strongman to strongman. Nevertheless, both Eastern Europe and Northern Africa, after decades of being brutalized, have mustered the courage to demand change.
Still, it would be a stretch to say that all former communist countries have experienced “de-communization.” Russia elected (and re-elected) Vladimir Putin, despite his KGB past. Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, branded “Europe’s last dictator,” has even kept the KGB name for his intelligence services. To this day, most ex-Soviet Central Asian republics are ruled by former communist apparatchiks.
In Central Europe, though, they opted for lustration. In Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest, the public was consumed by questions of complicity, or as a Sussex European Institute put it: “Who aided the security services in spying on neighbors, colleagues and family members? What fair penalty could be devised for this collaboration…? How should a society embracing liberal ideology and the rule of law deal with those of its members who ‘without being guilty, cannot be called innocent’?”
Each country tackled these tough questions in its own way. The Czechs purified with “radical” lustration in commissions that screened and delved into the backgrounds of more than 400,000 Communist Party rank-and-file.
In a country of just 10 million people, 3 percent were identified as informants. The country then banned more than 9,000 ex-party functionaries from most publicly elected or politically appointed offices, from jobs such as judges and prosecutors, and from top posts in state-owned companies, media, and universities.
Some critics said this cut too deeply, eliminating officials with much-needed “expertise” to help manage the transition to capitalism and democracy. But Stan suggests that experience can be overrated. After all, the Czech Republic never lost its primacy as a front-runner to join Western institutions like NATO and the EU. In fact, the risk that officials from the old system will work to undermine the transition may be just as great as the lack of experience.
“You may deplete your administration of skilled people, but renew it with elites committed to democracy,” she says. “Lacking skills is not a serious fault. They can be acquired — and very quickly.”
In contrast, Poland and Hungary opted for “confessional” lustration. Collaborators who admitted their role could keep their job. Many did, for refusal ran the risk of embarrassing exposure, should their file wind up in the hands of certain historians, journalists, or politicians.
Those who didn’t faced the risk of public outing: In January 1996, Polish Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy was forced to resign after accusations he had spied for Moscow. In 2002, conservative media in Hungary nearly brought down the socialist Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy, with revelations of his counterespionage. In January 2007, the newly tabbed Archbishop of Warsaw was outed as an informant, prompting him to quit.
Meanwhile, the ex-Soviet Baltic republics — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia — are an anomaly among communist-turned-EU countries. The accusations, provocations, and bare-knuckle politics have been mostly directed at a common external enemy — Russia, says Nikolai Meinert, an Estonian journalist now working for the Latvian News Media Group.
For locals who were “professional politicians” during the Soviet era, “the only way to save their status was to convince society it wasn’t the communists who were guilty for what happened, but the Russians,” says Meinert. “People are easily manipulated.”
Nevertheless, the Baltics purged many of their own officials, whom they accused of fealty to Moscow. In Lithuania, the “KGB Act” barred former agents from a slew of professions. Yet like any democracy, aggrieved Lithuanians had recourse. In 2004 and 2005, four low-level former agents took their case to the European Court of Human Rights, charging that the KGB Act violated their essential right to work. The court agreed.
“I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t deport anyone, I didn’t commit genocide,” one of the ex-KGB told the Christian Science Monitor in 2007. After the KGB Act, he said, “I felt like a rabbit upon which they were experimenting, making an example out of me.”
Punishing perpetrators of the past has been an emotional, divisive, and complicated process across Eastern Europe. Some individuals were justly exposed; others, not so justly. It’s also a process that never seems to end. Even earlier this month, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry announced the firing of seven officials accused of being communist-era secret agents.
With so many challenges confronting a post-authoritarian transition, some East Europeans tried to avoid the unpleasantness of purge by preaching forgive-and-forget reconciliation. That approach may also tempt some leaders in post-Mubarak Egypt and post-Ben Ali Tunisia. The reverberations, though, are inevitable, says Aleks Szczerbiak, a Polish professor of politics who co-authored the Sussex European Institute report.
“The problem is, the post-communist experience suggests the past does not just ‘go away,’ but can come back again as a source of divisions within society and as a salient political issue,” says Szczerbiak.
“You can’t just say, let bygones be bygones,” notes Tina Rosenberg, New York Times journalist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism. “If they don’t deal with this in an organized fashion, it will keep coming up in a disorganized fashion. People won’t just forget and go away.”
How deeply any country should cut, however, “is the million-dollar question” says Stan, the political scientist. “There’s no one-size-fits-all,” adds Tolbert.
Back in Egypt, some have already dubbed this the period of “de-Mubarakization.” It was telling that just days after Mubarak was toppled, some of his once-loyal police force was also out in the streets, protesting. Not just for better pay, but to save their hides. “I was following orders,” lamented one policeman, echoing a familiar historic refrain.
Whether the public and new elites buy it remains to be seen. On March 7, the Egyptian authorities ordered the arrests of 47 police officials for burning intelligence files. The rage in Egypt and Tunisia is such that a lynching or two would surprise no one. Yet some victims indicate they’d accept transitional justice over the vigilante version.
“We all suffered and saw horrible torture at the hands of this agency,” said one man in Alexandria, who’d stormed the city’s intelligence offices on March 4. “There is a huge desire to take revenge. But we would rather see them all put on trial.”
Michael J. Jordan, a Bratislava, Slovakia-based freelance journalist, has lived in and reported from post-communist Central and Eastern Europe since 1993. He blogs at