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Dredging Up Bad Memories

4 minute read

The lustrations currently sweeping Central and Eastern Europe first broke out in Slovakia, where late last year the government-sponsored Institute of National Memory (UPN) began publishing the names of some 10,000 alleged collaborators from the files of the former secret police, the StB. The final batch of names was released earlier this month. Among the accused is Archbishop Ján Sokol, 71, one of the country’s three most senior prelates and an opponent of the communist regime. Yet according to StB records, Sokol agreed to collaborate with that regime just as it was collapsing in 1989. Sokol says his registration as “agent” was forged and denies informing on his peers. “I sleep well,” he told TIME. “My conscience is clear.” Sokol is planning to sue to clear his name.

The reliability of the StB records has been found wanting in the past. In the neighboring Czech Republic, where StB files were first officially released in 1996, around 800 people have so far challenged the accuracy of their records in the courts, and 70% have succeeded in clearing their names, according to the Czech Ministry of the Interior. Still, other Catholic clergymen have appeared on StB lists, and last month the Slovak Bishops’ Conference issued an apology: “We concede that some clergy were in the service of the StB, and we don’t want to defend them,” it said. Despite the controversy, the Slovak government backs the UPN’s efforts.

In Lithuania, where an explosive list of 60 alleged KGB “reservists” was posted on the Web last month, high-profile politicians have been targeted. The list included Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis and two other senior Lithuanian officials. A parliamentary commission appointed to investigate the charges confirmed the list’s authenticity earlier this month, but noted that KGB “reservists” were not necessarily agents, and that the presence of these men in government does not compromise national security. Opposition members are still insisting they step down.

In yet another case of “wild,” or unregulated, lustration, the Hungarian think tank Political Capital released its own list of 60 alleged collaborators last month, the first of what Krisztián Szabados, the organization’s co-director, says are 150,000 Hungarians known as agents or informers. The aim is “to pressure the political élite” to open the files and “end the political games that have been poisoning Hungarian society for 15 years,” Szabados says. “We want to finish with this story.” In the past, names have been selectively released for political advantage. It was an opposition newspaper which, in 2002, first printed news that then Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy was a counterintelligence agent under the communist regime. Medgyessy conceded the fact, but said he had been acting in the Hungarian national interest against the U.S.S.R.

Political Capital’s disclosures include the name of István Csurka, leader of the ultraconservative Hungarian Justice and Life Party. Csurka, 70, told TIME that he was broken while in prison camp following the failed 1956 uprising against communist rule. He said he signed a loyalty document but did not follow through. “The police contacted me but I hid from them. I tried to deceive them,” he says. Csurka says the current effort shouldn’t focus on alleged small fry like him, but on senior agents he claims now hold posts in today’s socialist coalition government. “They should start at the top,” he says. “There are hours of the night that I spend thinking what I should have done. Yes, it would have been good to be a hero. But I decided not to and not only because of harassment and torture. I wanted to give myself a chance to have a life.”

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