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World Perspective | POLAND

Desire to Punish Villains of the Past Splits Poland

May 10, 1997|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — Poles often complain about the many injustices born during the revolution of 1989, but few issues raise more political heat here than the free ride given Communist-era collaborators.

Unlike Romania, there were no vengeful executions in Poland of overthrown dictators. Unlike the former East Germany, there were no humiliating disclosures of neighbors, spouses and friends who snitched for police. And unlike the Czech Republic and Slovakia, there were no heavy-handed laws banning the Old Guard from returning to public office.

But eight years after the round-table talks that negotiated an end to the Communist grip on power in Poland, an effort is afoot to settle the score with at least some of the villains of the past.

The problem is figuring out who qualifies as a villain.

Spurred by a spying scandal last year that led to the resignation of then-Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy, legislators have drafted a screening law that would require candidates for top government posts--including members of Parliament--to state if they ever cooperated with Communist-era security services.

Declarations of collaboration would not automatically prevent erstwhile informants from getting jobs, but as a practical matter, public confessions would come at a high political price.

The legislation would set up a special court with access to confidential Internal Affairs Ministry files to verify the accuracy of the declarations; those determined to have lied would be banned from public office for 10 years and face possible fines and prison terms.

The proposed law was approved last month by the lower house of Parliament despite strong opposition from the former Communists, who are the dominant partner in the governing coalition. It will be debated next week by the Senate, which has already been barraged with objections from President Aleksander Kwasniewski, himself a former Communist, and a group of retired Communist-era spies.

Critics say the legislation defines collaboration too vaguely, relies on spotty--and sometimes forged--secret police records and fails to distinguish between good and bad spying. It would also do nothing to prevent Oleksy-style

scandals, since the former prime minister was accused of spying for Moscow, not the Polish services.

Both former Communists and anti-Communists, moreover, worry that a contentious new airing of the past will deepen pre-1989 divisions that already polarize the Polish electorate.

"It is too late for this," said Alicja Potocka of the Institute for East-West Studies in Warsaw. "People did what they had to do to survive. We may not like it, but it is for God to judge now."

In an extraordinary plea published on the front page of Trybuna Ludu, the onetime newspaper of the now-defunct Polish United Workers' Party, 12 former intelligence officers defended their Communist-era espionage and warned that the new law would paralyze intelligence operations unless it is amended to exclude spying abroad.

"Access to intelligence archives will be hazardous to the safety of . . . foreigners and Poles abroad since . . . it is not possible to screen only domestic intelligence collaborators without disclosing foreign sources and operational links," the former spies wrote.

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But supporters of the new law object to special consideration for intelligence officers because they often assisted in the surveillance of opposition leaders. Some right-wing lawmakers, moreover, insist that the legislation does not go far enough, saying all public officials--including teachers--should be screened.

Kwasniewski will not say until after the Senate reviews the legislation whether he will veto it. Meantime, he is urging that the law be broadened to give ordinary Poles access to secret police files compiled on themselves--another sure-bet political maelstrom.

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