Lustration Should Not be About Purges

The lustration process in Macedonia is one of several in the region that have gone horribly wrong – becoming a tool by which the authorities stigmatise their enemies.

This article originally appeared on 27 January in BalkanInsight,

A society contaminated by totalitarian manipulation needs to be cleaned. This truth is as simple as it is almost impossible to carry out. I know of no single case that has passed uncontested by the former perpetrators. And it is the problem with democracies that the former manipulators are entitled to a voice, too, even after lustration, conviction, or whatever other measure are taken against them.

Ideally though, the process is primarily a social one. It is important to have a public discourse. It is important to make crimes committed by totalitarian regimes public, to have them enter the collective memory and condemn them. It is important to teach them, research them in detail, and make these details public.

Of course it is unacceptable that former perpetrators of these crimes and their informants, that spineless species, be granted public functions, at least for a period. And of course the failure to declare one’s status as a collaborator should be penalised. And of course that is theory.

Look at countries like Romania or Bulgaria, where a large part of the political elites have emerged from the rank and file of the former perpetrators.

Look at Germany after the downfall of the Nazi regime, both West and East Germany (Yes, also there), where former Nazis were used as experts in their respective fields, despite de-Nazification and despite various democratic pledges. Look at Germany now, where the former perpetrators of crimes not only have their own political party and interest groups but actively fight the lustration procedures, albeit not very successfully.

But Germany is also an example of a fair law and procedure. More than 20 years after the fall of the Communist regime, the archives are still open, victims can still access their files, perpetrators can still be prosecuted, and informers can lose their public jobs.

Public is the key word here. Public function is the one and only field of interest to the state in this respect. Whether a private company or organisation employs a former member of the Stasi or an informant is a private matter for them.

It might be slightly disgusting, but who would expect private matters always to be moral, and ethical? Or rather, who would assume the right to be the judge of that?

A different example is Romania, where my parents’ victim files are hosted, as are those of some good friends, former dissidents. These files are incomplete and erratic. And this won’t change. Why? Because they were under control of the perpetrators of the crimes for more than a decade after the regime imploded. They have been manipulated, tampered with, and destroyed in such a manner that proper reconstruction of events is an enormously complex puzzle.

A third example is Macedonia. Here, the process started two decades late and is flawed in almost every respect. Like so many other issues in Macedonia today, the process of lustration is subject to political warfare.

Instead of instigating a public debate on the role of the self-styled elites in the former Yugoslavia and discussing the collaboration of broad parts of the population with a system that oppressed other parts, the whole matter is limited to the exposure of alleged informants.

I will omit the details about how the commission in charge of the process is anything but independent, and how the political elites created yet another partisan institution that they can misuse in public according to their needs. I am talking about the political elites, plural, because both today’s government and the opposition have participated in creating the mess. And they have done so on purpose, for the purpose of control, to have ammunition in the fight against the political enemy.

The problem is that the “other” is indeed the enemy, not an opponent. It is the personalisation of politics, common in this part of the world, which holds the entire society hostage to the egos of a few. The lustration process is victim of the same reflexes.

Why else would there have been a political decision to extend the lustration process both in terms of the timeframe and in terms of the persons to be covered?

To explain to those who haven’t followed the issue: the law as it is also covers the 1990s, a decade of democracy – however transitional and imperfect, but still a democratic decade.

One eyebrow goes up. Secondly, the law now seeks lustration of civil society representatives and journalists. Second eyebrow goes up, and the signal switches to alert.

Powerful opponents of the authorities in civil society and media have been stigmatised as traitors for years now. The lustration process, as it looks now, is an attempt to award this process of stigmatisation the equivalent of a diploma, a piece of paper that cannot be denied, refuted and forgotten.

Whatever the circumstances, damage is being done. Lustration is about the past, it is not to be confused with purges.

The decision by Macedonia’s constitutional court to suspend 12 provisions of the lustration law is to be commended. Hopefully it will help bringing the process of lustration back to where it belongs: uncovering the crimes of the past.

Hopefully also it will send a clear signal to the political elites to continue their fight in the arena where it is supposed to take place: in the political arena of the present, in the institutions and not in the murky corridors of defunct secret services.

Vision? They’re coming for you…


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