The Polish Witch-Hunt

Adam Michnik, translated from the Polish by Irena Grudzinska Gross and Olga Amsterdamska

Recently, the Polish government attempted to strip Bronisław Geremek of his seat in the European Parliament, to which he had been elected in 2004. The Parliament immediately voted to condemn the Polish government’s action. One of Poland’s most distinguished public figures, Geremek was a leader of Solidarity and a former political prisoner of the Communist regime. As foreign minister from 1997 to 2000, he was responsible for Poland’s accession to NATO. The Polish government tried to have him dismissed because Geremek had refused to sign a declaration that he had not been a secret police agent during the Communist years.

The duty to make such a declaration was mandated by a new law of “lustration,” or purification, which was pushed through the Polish parliament by Poland’s right-wing government, led by President Lech Kaczyński and his twin brother, Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, in a sweeping campaign to “purge” Poland’s professional classes of people who are suspected of having been secret collaborators of the security services between 1944 and 1990. The law, which took effect on March 15, required all Poles occupying professional jobs in the private, public, and state sectors and born before August 1972—including politicians, professors, lawyers, judges, journalists, bank managers, and the heads of schools, companies, etc.—to declare in writing within two months whether or not they had collaborated with the former Communist security services. Those who, like Geremek, refuse, or who give false information, could be banned from practicing their professions or holding public office for ten years.

EU parliamentarians called the Polish government’s actions against Geremek a witch-hunt. In refusing to comply, Geremek—whose Communist-era activities had already been vetted by previous governments and whose anti-Communist credentials are beyond dispute—declared the new lustration law a threat to civil liberties. In response, Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński accused Geremek of “damaging his fatherland” and “provoking an anti-Polish affair.” The same phrases were used by the leaders of Communist Poland years earlier when Geremek criticized their misrule.

On May 11, Poland’s Constitutional Court ruled that many of the new lustration procedures were unconstitutional—the decision was long and very detailed. “Lustration cannot be used to punish people as a form of revenge,” the court’s presiding judge said. The court also ruled that “an elected official cannot lose his mandate for refusing to fill in the declaration.” So Geremek’s position in the European Parliament is safe—at least for now.

But the lustration law was only one act among many in a systematic effort by the ruling Law and Justice party and its supporters to undermine the country’s democratic institutions. Since their election victory in 2005, the Kaczyńskis and their governing coalition have attempted to blur the separation of powers in order to strengthen the executive branch they control. The president, the prime minister, and the secretary of justice have attacked the independence of the courts in several ways: by publicly challenging any verdict they don’t like; by showing disrespect for the Constitutional Court, including suggestions that its judges are biased; and by the…

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