Eastern Europe: Après Le Déluge, Nous

Lech Walesa
Lech Walesa; drawing by David Levine


I telephoned Jacek Kuron, the veteran dissenter, now Poland’s minister for labor and social affairs. A woman answered the phone.

“Could I speak to pan minister Kuron, please?”

“But this is the censors’ office,” the woman politely replied. (The telephone numbers differ only by one digit.)

“I thought censorship had been abolished?”

“Yes, it has, but our contracts run until the end of July so we’re still here.”

“Well, I wish you pleasant inactivity.”

“Thank you, and all the very best to you.” She sounded charming.

Former censors, former border guards, former apparatchiks, former secret policemen: What is to be done with them? Or rather, what is to be done with Them—Oni—as the Communist power holders, great and small, were universally known. There is the question of justice. At the highest level, this is the Nuremberg question. Should the men at the top be brought to trial for the evil they did, or that was done under them? If so, on what charges and by what laws? At a lower level it becomes almost a question of social justice. Is it fair, people ask, that those who had comfortable office jobs under the Communists should still have them today, when ordinary people are having to tighten their belts yet more? Is it fair that members of the nomenklatura are exploiting the unclear legal conditions of privatization to take over as capitalists the enterprises they had previously commanded as Communists?

Yet the requirements of justice can clash with the requirements of efficiency. If the choice is between a compromised, incompetent person and an uncompromised, competent one, then the decision is easy. But what if the choice is between a compromised but relatively professional person and an uncompromised but wholly amateur one? I dine with the new ambassador of an East Central European country, a charming person, Catholic, brave, honest, proud. The number two man at the embassy, by contrast, is plainly from the old guard, at best an unprincipled careerist, complete with regulation dandruff and greasy smile. He starts telling me how this year he hoped they would lay a wreath at a monument to the American rather than the Soviet liberators. A perfect turncoat. Yet at least he has some rudimentary professionalism in foreign affairs, whereas the ambassador tells me that “our foreign minister has introduced a new element into international relations—it’s called trust.” Oh dear.

There is the problem of Them, but there is also the problem of Us. “We Are Not Like Them,” chanted the crowds in Prague during last November’s revolution. Six months later some of those same people can be heard muttering about how the new power holders resemble the old. In Poland, the disgruntled now speak of a “new nomenklatura.” The regional Civic Commitees, originally set up to fight the elections for Solidarity last summer, are, they claim, beginning to work like the Party Committees…

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