Two and a half years after the Velvet Revolution, throngs of people fill Wenceslas Square day and night, many of them tourists or foreigners who have come to Czechoslovakia to help rebuild the country or just to be where the action is. Much of the city’s center is being “gentrified”; walls glisten with fresh paint. There are still many stores from the Communist era, their signs a study in brown on brown, their names announcing only the products they sell—“Tabák,” “Drogerie”—but they are now interspersed with stylish shops such as “The Country Life,” a health-food store, and one selling American T-shirts that say “Prague: Czech It Out.” Notwithstanding a huge new McDonald’s, it is mainly German investment capital that is making such changes possible.

There seems something naive and innocent in the new atmosphere. Even the prostitutes who now patrol the hotels, as the secret police used to do, look like inexperienced schoolgirls, swinging their clunky handbags as if they were lunchboxes. In my hotel room I found a Bible as well as advertisements for nightclubs and “topless” cabaret shows; and among the many publications sold around town is the English-language Prague Post, which carries a large advertisement for The New York Review of Books, a publication that I used to smuggle into the country.

I visited Prague in March, for the first time in two years. In the old days, such a lapse of time didn’t matter much. I knew what to expect when I went there on a human rights mission for Helsinki Watch. The situation was black and white. On one side were the Communists who, during the twenty-year period known as “normalization” which followed the 1968 Soviet invasion, claimed one fifth of the population as Party members and seemed in almost complete control of every civil institution. Opposing the Communists was a small band of Charter 77 activists, some of them former Communists who had supported the Prague Spring and broke with the Party in 1968. These people were persecuted and ostracized, yet they continued to stand up to the authorities with remarkable stamina and élan. The rest of the population hardly seemed to matter. Derisively referred to by some dissidents as the “gray zone,” they were passive and seemingly apolitical, escaping to their country cottages on weekends and avoiding trouble with the regime.

Among the people I saw first on arriving in Prague this March were Václav Havel, Jirí Dienstbier, Martin Palous, and Petr Uhl, all of whom I had known as dissidents during the more than a dozen years in which Helsinki Watch has been monitoring human rights in Czechoslovakia. They are now, respectively, president, foreign minister, deputy foreign minister, and director general of the Czechoslovak News Agency. We used to meet on street corners, in parks, or in out-of-the-way cafés; this time I met Havel in the gilded rooms of the Hradcany Castle and posed for photographs at the meeting’s end. Yet despite all these miraculous transformations, my concerns, sadly, were all too familiar: I was there to discuss human rights problems in post-Communist Czechoslovakia with a government now run by my former colleagues in the human rights movement.

On October 4, 1991, the Czech and Slovak National Assembly passed a new law known as the “lustration” act (the term, derived from Latin, literally means “sacrificial purification”). It is directed against former secret police agents and their collaborators, against former Communists who had held positions of authority from the district level up, and against thousands of others who belonged to groups such as the voluntary Peoples Militia, which was run by the Party. It applies as well to members of National Front Action committees and similar committees that were used to exclude undesirable or suspect citizens from jobs, civic organizations, and universities after the Communists clamped down on independent activity in 1948 and 1968. The lustration law also singles out people who received police training in Moscow.

According to the International Labor Organization, more than one million people could be affected by the law. It bars, for a five-year period, former members of the listed groups from holding high-level administrative posts in the government ministries, the military, the intelligence service, the police corps, state radio and television, news agencies, and state-owned enterprises including foreign trade companies, railways, and banks. It also excludes them from high academic positions, and from working as judges, prosecutors, investigators, and from other positions connected with the courts. The law allows citizens to contest its findings before an independent commission; by the end of March it had received about three hundred requests for review and acted upon eight. “And it is just beginning,” a journalist told me in Prague. “It’s much bigger than anyone anticipated.”

The law has two aims: first, to remove or exclude from government jobs people who in the past held certain official positions or belonged to certain Communist-run organizations; and second, to expose and to exclude from government employment anyone who worked for the secret police. The law was heatedly debated in the Parliament in late 1991 and passed by a very close vote. Many of the deputies who had spent their lives fighting communism found themselves voting against the law along with the Communists, who have 13 percent of the Parliament’s 350 seats. Jirí Dienstbier refers to the anti-Communist deputies who voted for the bill as “right-wing Bolshevists” in spirit.


In dealing with former Communists and fellow travelers, the law places the burden of proof upon all persons holding or seeking high-level positions; it requires each employee or each job applicant to produce a document issued by the federal ministry of the interior declaring that he or she is “clean,” i.e., did not belong to any of the listed organizations. It thus makes a blanket assumption of collective guilt, punishing people for having belonged to certain groups, regardless of when they belonged, what activities they engaged in, or how tenuous their connection may have been. (In the original version of the law that the government submitted to Parliament, officials would bring cases only against specific individuals who were believed to be responsible for specific violations of human rights; but that provision in the law was eliminated during the parliamentary debate.)

With regard to secret police agents and informants, the law relies on records discovered in the registers and files of the StB—the secret police. The law therefore discounts the possibility that the evidence might have been placed there for sinister or self-serving reasons and it assumes the raw information to be correct unless proven otherwise. Moreover, the files are far from complete: more than 15,000 of them, mainly current files of highly placed agents and officials, were destroyed by the StB during the final days of the Communist regime. Richard Sacher, the first minister of the interior appointed after the revolution, was, I was told, close to some of the secret police and may have allowed additional files to be destroyed.

Early in 1990 Havel replaced Sacher with Jan Langos, a former dissident and Catholic activist with fierce anti-Communist views. By collecting police registers throughout the country and assembling them in Prague, Langos laid the ground for the lustration law. The police registers, which are both handwritten and entered in computers, are in effect indexes to the extensive police files; they contain the names of some 140,000 secret police agents, collaborators, and contacts during the Communist period between 1948 and 1989. The supporters of the lustration law say that the information in the registers has proved to be reliable. They have thus put their faith in the secret police, who were known to have lied consistently and to have misled and abused the population; in this sense it appears the police still rule, reaching out from the grave.

The lustration law was a predictable expansion of an earlier purification measure affecting only members of Parliament. In February 1991 a commission was appointed in the Parliament to review the police files and expose parliamentarians who were listed in them as agents or collaborators. Parliamentarians, because they are elected and enjoy immunity, cannot be dismissed; instead those whose names were found in the registers or files were told by the commission that they could either resign quietly from Parliament or be exposed publicly. On March 22, 1991, at a special, televised session of Parliament, the names of ten StB collaborators were read aloud. These were the deputies who refused to resign; some are now contesting the charges.

On December 11, 1991, Parliament passed another anti-Communist law, number 260, saying,

Whoever supports or promotes groups which demonstrably aim to suppress the rights and freedoms of citizens or declare national, racial, class, or religious hatred [such as, for example, fascism or communism] will be punished by imprisonment for one to five years.

This law, which was immediately criticized by President Havel, has not so far been applied. Its vagueness and the fact that it was passed in a society in which the Communist Party is still legal have led many to believe that the newly created Constitutional Court will rule it unconstitutional.

Supporters of the lustration law say that only several thousand positions are at stake, yet more than 300,000 applications have been submitted to the ministry of the interior. No one knows how many people have been denied clearance. The situation seems out of control, and it is made more confused by the fact that some departments and enterprises that do not come under the lustration act have nevertheless chosen to screen their employees.

The lustration act has also been challenged. Ninety-nine members of Parliament recently voted to refer it to the Constitutional Court, following a ruling by the International Labor Organization that the law should be repealed or changed because it discriminates on the basis of political views and rules on the concept of collective guilt. No one, however, expects the Constitutional Court to hand down any decisions before the parliamentary elections that will take place this June.


Meanwhile, the Parliament is highly unlikely to consider any changes in the lustration law since it has been stopped from passing most new legislation by the current deadly stalemate between Czechs and Slovaks, which threatens to tear the country apart. Czechoslovakia is still operating under its old constitution of 1968; the long-awaited draft of a new constitution has yet to be submitted. In the meantime, constitutional amendments must be approved by three fifths of the elected deputies, regardless of whether they are present, and the large Slovak bloc is able to prevent major legislation from being passed merely by walking out. This has meant that five major proposals for reform by President Havel—including amendments to the lustration law and the election laws, and a referendum on national unity—have been defeated.

Prague is filled with rumors, gossip, suspicion, and fear, much of it based on false information from the StB files. The atmosphere is charged and unpleasant. Everyone with whom I met had a story to tell: about the man who informed on his brother; about the fellow worker whose job it was to tell the police about the sexual habits of everyone in the office; about the police informers in the Charter 77 movement—as many, I was told, as one out of every five members. I met with an old friend who had been exposed as a police collaborator. I had known him as a highly respected lawyer who defended dissidents when no one else would and who helped me plan my first visit to Czechoslovakia in 1979. I listened, wanting to believe what he told me was true—that he and the secret police were “engaged in general discussions about society,” that he had not informed on any of his colleagues.

A few prominent dissidents have expressed sympathy for certain of the informers. “Some of my best friends turned out to be informers,” Jan Urban, a well-known journalist who opposes the lustration law, told me. “I found out how state security broke them down. I don’t want to judge. I don’t know how I would have behaved in their shoes.” Pavel Bratinka, a parliamentarian who told me he is “absolutely in favor of the lustration law,” said that the files still make “very sad reading. There are bishops, priests, film makers, and sometimes you find your friend.” But his sympathy was limited: “Agents had to be reliable, so they were never pressured against their will…. Perhaps some informers were.”

On March 4 the Parliament rejected a proposal that the names of all secret police agents and collaborators be made public. At the same time it approved a resolution allowing all citizens access to their own files. This resolution may take years to carry out; meanwhile, the files are kept under lock and key by Interior Minister Langos, his deputy, Jan Ruml, and a few other high officials. But much of the information has already become known. Immediately after the revolution, a number of people somehow found ways to see their own and other people’s files and were able to photocopy them and even destroy them. Later the registers and files of the elected deputies who were exposed as agents or informers were opened to all members of Parliament who, during the review process, were able to gather information about others as well. A number of people in Prague told me in confidence that they had seen someone else’s file and then proceeded, without any urging, to describe the contents, “completely off the record, of course.” Several such unsolicited confidences took place in the presence of a stranger—my interpreter—without so much as a glance in her direction.

The most publicized case of alleged StB connections is that of Jan Kavan, who emigrated to London as a young student after 1968 and set up the Palach Press, which distributed the writings of dissidents abroad and did much to support the Czech resistance. Kavan, as I know from my own experience, was one of the principal links between Czechoslovak activists and their supporters in the West. He returned to Prague after 1989 and ran successfully for Parliament. Then his name turned up in the secret police register as someone who had had conversations with government agents when he was a student in London in 1969 and 1970. Kavan denies that he did anything wrong and he has been waging an international campaign to clear his name.

Kavan’s supporters claim that he is being singled out because his views are pro-socialist and because his past behavior has often been indiscreet—for example he talked of having made numerous trips to Czechoslovakia before 1989, using a fake British passport. Litigious by nature, he has been imaginative in the legal actions he has brought to defend himself. In February he received a document from the interior ministry saying that he was cleared of the charges against him, but soon afterward Interior Minister Langos canceled the ruling, saying that it was a mistake. However one may judge the facts of his case, it is clear that the procedures used against him have been both unfair and unworkable.

Jan’s father, Pavel Kavan, was a leading Communist who was arrested and tried for treason in the notorious Slanský trials of 1952, part of a vast purge throughout Eastern Europe directed from Moscow. Jan, who was five when his father was arrested, was shunned by his friends as the son of a traitor. He heard his father recant publicly over the radio, and saw him emerge from prison broken in spirit and health. He died of a heart attack four years later. Eduard Goldstücker, now seventy-nine, a Kafka scholar and a prominent activist in the Prague Spring, who was jailed in the 1950s with Slanský and Kavan, observed, “The sons try unconsciously to live the unlived lives of their fathers.”

Another case involves Zdenek Mlynar, a former member of the Politburo and a close collaborator of Alexander Dubcek during the Prague Spring. On February 13, a spokesman for the interior ministry declared on behalf of a group of investigators within the ministry that eighteen former Communist Party leaders, including Mlynar, had committed treason by going to the Soviet embassy in Prague shortly after the 1968 invasion, when Soviet officials were trying to put together a post-Dubcek regime. The interior ministry ignored that Mlynar had refused to take part in any new government, and had immediately gone from the embassy to the “illegal” fourteenth Party congress where he told the dissident Communists assembled there what had happened. Most of the others in the accused group of eighteen are hard-liners who cannot be brought to trial because the twenty-year statute of limitations has expired. But Mlynar, who courageously resigned from the Party and became one of the authors and original signers of Charter 77, was forced to emigrate in 1978. Ironically, the statute of limitations does not apply to him because he lived abroad for many years and returned to Prague only after November 1989.

Mlynar strongly opposes the lustration act and publicly urged Havel not to sign it. His son Vladimir, a journalist who works for the right-of-center weekly Respekt, is ambivalent about lustration. “It’s not a good thing for democracy, but it’s needed,” he told me. “I’m not objective because it touches my parents.”

Vladimir’s mother is Rita Klimová, Czechoslovakia’s ambassador to the United States, who is a potential victim of the lustration act because she belonged to a non-Party action committee when she was sixteen years old. The top Communists, Vladimir Mlynar said, were hardly being touched by the law, because they hold high elective office, or are working in private business, or have retired with substantial pensions. Even Miroslav Stepán, the Prague Party chief who was tried for giving orders to violently suppress the November 17, 1989, demonstration that ushered in the Velvet Revolution, has already served his six-month sentence and is now autographing copies of his memoirs.

Vladimir is distressed that no one, “not even Havel,” has come to his father’s defense. Although some believe that Mlynar has been unfairly singled out because of his criticism of the lustration law, Vladimir preferred to blame the treason charge on the political stupidity of the police. “I hope this is the case,” he told me, “or I would lose my faith in everything here.”

I asked Vladimir if he worried about becoming a target himself because of his parents’ past, but he dismissed the question as far-fetched. Yet at my very next meeting, the new head of a political think tank in Prague, who has been reluctantly “lustrating” his staff, told me that he was under pressure not to hire the children of former Communists.

The lustration law is a symptom of a swing to the right in Czech political life, but it has supporters among people of moderate views as well. Some believe that it is necessary in the interests of justice. They speak about popular frustration over the slow pace of reform and unfulfilled expectations. They find it unfair that former police and Communists still have privileged positions throughout the bureaucracy, and often in private business, while former political prisoners, some of them maimed and disabled, have received no benefits from the “so-called” revolution. They are impatient after more than twenty years. They say that the Communists are blocking reforms and democracy, and that former Communist nationalists in Slovakia are threatening to cut the country in two. They believe, in retrospect, that the Velvet Revolution was too soft, that revolutionary justice should immediately have followed the overthrow of the Communist regime, “like the arrests in Moscow following the August coup.” Yet some who at first supported lustration have become disenchanted with the process because of the way in which it is being misused, and the hatred and vengeance that it has unleashed.

Those most actively seeking vengeance are not, I found, the former dissidents who suffered more than others did at the hands of the Communists. Having spoken out all along, the dissidents appear to have less need for catharsis now; nor do they feel they have to prove themselves. The people seeking vengeance, on the whole, come from the “gray zone”—neither Communists nor dissidents, they sat back, did nothing to incur disapproval, and were not persecuted. They suffer now, some say, from a guilty conscience and are taking revenge for their own humiliation. By insisting on “purification,” they want to show that they are pure. Thus they seek scape-goats, attacking even the Communists who took part in Prague Spring. They call the former dissidents “a kind of mafia,” in an attempt to justify not having joined them themselves. Some are too young to remember the Prague Spring. One young woman told me that Alexander Dubcek’s notion of “communism with a human face” was “sickening” to her generation.

Many of those seeking vengeance against the Communists have political motives or aspirations. They support Václav Klaus, the present finance minister, a politically “clean,” rightwing economist who was fired by the Communists from an economic institute in 1970 and then worked in a state bank and in an economic forecasting unit sponsored by the Academy of Sciences. Klaus, a quietly confident man who has a strong popular following, is said to have “never signed anything.” “Most Czechs are like this,” a recently returned émigré observed. “That’s why they like him.” Klaus, an admirer of Milton Friedman’s economic theories, is committed to rapidly establishing a free-market economy, even at some social cost; but unemployment is so far no more than 7 percent, which partly accounts for his current popularity. He can also take credit for encouraging thousands of small businesses since 1989, and he has put forward plans to widely distribute shares in government-owned property.

His Civic Democratic Party (ODS), formed after a split in the original Civic Forum between Klaus and Dienstbier, is on record as strongly favoring the lustration act; and Klaus and his fellow ODS leaders are quick to dismiss the principled objections to the lustration law raised by Havel, Dienstbier, and the ILO. According to the polls their party has the support of more than 20 percent of the voters, making it now the strongest in Czechoslovakia. Klaus is expected to emerge from the coming elections as the most powerful Czech politician. The Civic Movement (OH) of Foreign Minister Jirí Dienstbier has been much weaker than Klaus’s party, but it has recently been gaining ground and, especially in view of the possible alliances among the many parties on the ballot, it is too early to assess its prospects in June. Although the parties are not required to do so, most will feel obliged to show that their candidates have been satisfactorily “lustrated.”

In Slovakia, where political leaders try to exploit nationalistic feelings and where secession is a constant threat, Vladimir Meciar, a populist leader who is critical of Václav Havel, and has been publicly accused of past associations with the secret police, is gathering support for a movement that appears to be both nationalist and socialist. Meciar believes not only in Slovak self-rule but in a state-sponsored economy. His economic theories are wholly at odds with those of Klaus, and the potential clash between Slovaks and Czechs on this issue and others further threatens the country’s unity. Meciar, who supported Havel for the presidency two years ago, has said that he will not support him this time, especially if Klaus—who, like Havel, is Czech—should become the federal prime minister.

Havel has not yet announced whether he will seek reelection by the new legislature: he says that he will wait until after the elections to decide. Some of his closest associates told me that he fears that he may go down in history as the president who presided over the dissolution of the Czech and Solvak Republic, His concern to prevent the country from breaking up makes him appear weak on issues like lustration. On March 2, he fired the prosecutor general, Ivan Gasparovic, who had been accused of being too slow in prosecuting former Communists and secret police; this led to complaints that Havel is pandering to the right. In fact, Havel is trying to stay above politics and to be open to all sides.

“We have not yet found a dignified and civilized way to reckon with our past,” Havel told me during our most recent meeting. “The lustration act affects the small fish. The big ones are laughing at us. They have become capitalists; the act does not affect them.” In a recent interview with Adam Michnik, Havel expressed his concern about “lawless revenge and witch hunts.” “I do not feel the need for revenge,” he told Michnik, “but as a state official, I have no right to proclaim a universal act of clemency on behalf of others.”

Havel signed the lustration act while announcing at the same time that he would immediately try to amend it.* His proposed amendments, to ensure that every citizen should be judged separately by an independent court, were, however, submitted in the form of a letter, not in the legal language that would have precipitated a formal parliamentary debate. “He’s being politic with the right,” a former admirer of Havel told me. “He’s not the old Václav Havel.”

Havel’s approach was different from that of his Hungarian counterpart, President Arpad Goncz, who refused to sign a bill that would have extended the statute of limitations in Hungary in order to prosecute those suspected of crimes during the 1956 Hungarian revolution and its aftermath. President Goncz sent the bill to Hungary’s new Constitutional Court which, despite predictions to the contrary, declared it unconstitutional.

Václav Havel, before and after he became president, set a high moral standard for the people of Czechoslovakia when he expressed confidence in the country’s ability to return to “honesty, decency, and mutual respect.” “Everywhere in the world,” he said, “people were surprised at how these malleable, humiliated, cynical citizens of Czechoslovakia, who seemingly believed in nothing, found the tremendous strength to cast off the totalitarian system within a few weeks in an entirely peaceful and dignified manner.” But he also issued a warning: “We cannot lay all the blame on those who ruled before, not only because this would not be true but also because it could distract from the responsibility each of us now faces.”

Privately, Havel was deeply worried. He told me early in 1990, when Czechoslovakia was still suffused by a warm, postrevolutionary glow, that “hard times” were soon to come. “All the bad qualities will come out now, after forty years of suppression.” Two years later, some of his worst fears have been realized.

It is understandable that witch hunts against former Communists are now fiercely under way in Czechoslovakia and Germany. Both countries had extremely repressive governments from which there was no outlet for anger, except for those who could escape the country. In Poland and Hungary, where parallel institutions of civil society emerged under the Communists, the process of decommunization has not been as brutal. Poland and Hungary had reformist governments in 1989 that engaged in dialogue with the dissidents and, however grudgingly, acquiesced in change. But the governments of Czechoslovakia and Germany fell apart abruptly, leaving an ideological and emotional vacuum.

“For many people, the sense of life was based on the struggle with the old regime,” a Prague psychologist told me. “Now there’s a regression into irrational thinking. People feel insecure.” The people of Czechoslovakia have emerged from a long sleep into a world that makes them deeply uneasy. The result is xenophobia and hostility toward everything that is different or foreign: Gypsies, Vietnamese, homosexuals, Communists—all have become the targets of suspicion and prejudice.

How can Czechoslovakia reconcile itself with its history and begin to deal responsibly with its past? In Prague I found a considerable degree of consensus on what can be done. Those who committed clearly defined crimes should be brought to justice, with full opportunity to defend themselves before an independent court of law. The sufferings of the victims of communism, particularly of people killed or tortured, should be acknowledged, with financial compensation whenever possible. An independent commission should be established to document abuses so that the full truth can be made known. Lustration is only a substitute for truth-telling, and is clearly not the answer. But neither is a policy of “forgive and forget.” The country has suffered too much and too long.

The people of Czechoslovakia should accept the fact that it will not be possible, or even desirable, to punish every Communist for every reprehensible act. The main criminal—the Communist system itself—has been put to rest. Its methods were so insidious, its crimes often so petty, that its immense horror can be seen only in the sum of its many parts. Communism denied citizens their human dignity by forcing them both to hide their thoughts and to pretend to agree to a system they despised. It created an environment in which no one could be trusted. It demanded active support. Pavel Bratinka put it succinctly: “They forced people to say ‘bad’ is ‘good’ and ‘false’ is ‘true’; they destroyed people in their hearts and souls.”

Nor will it be possible to make amends to all the victims. The real victim is society as a whole. Virtually everyone was implicated in some way—not just the Communists, not just those who acquiesced. Even the dissidents were forced to make compromises. This is the painful legacy of communism. It should not be dealt with by adopting the tactics of the former oppressors, but by following Václav Havel’s prescription of honesty, decency, and mutual respect.

March 26, 1992

This Issue

April 23, 1992