Velvet revolution shows an iron fist

October 30, 1991

By Sally Low

PRAGUE — The Czechoslovak parliament on October 4 passed the harshest political screening law so far enacted in any east European country since 1989.

All people who, at any time between February 1948 and November 1989, held positions in the Communist Party at or above the level of district committee secretary, were members of the people's militia or whose name appears on files of the former secret police as collaborators, are to be automatically barred for five years from public offices in the civil service, the mass media, the post office, elected positions in universities, the army and many others.

There will be no onus of proof on the screening commission and no presumption of innocence: listed people will be sacked before they can appeal.

Even Alexander Dubcek and many others who, as leaders of the 1968 reform period, suffered repression after the Warsaw Pact invasion, will be affected, although the ban will not apply to parliamentary office.

Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party (ODS) led a coalition of right-wing deputies to amend the government's bill, which had allowed more scope for appeal. They defeated a provision that required the investigating commission to seek to prove or disprove guilt.

Once again, the written word of the hated StB, the former secret police, will be enough to have a person sacked.

In support of the right to appeal, Civic Movement (the more liberal wing of what used to be Civic Forum, led by foreign minister Jiri Dienstbier) invited into parliament a man who had been arrested in 1972 for demonstrating against the invasion.

"He had been taken down to the police station and whipped", reported Adam Novak, a left activist and former subeditor for CSTK, the state press service. "According to MP Petr Uhl, he took his shirt off to show his back crisscrossed with scars and said, 'After they did that to me, I signed a declaration saying that I would happily work with them as an informant. Luckily they never called on me, but I'd like to tell the parliament today that I never wanted to work with them and I never did.'"

Seeming to adhere to the old Czechoslovak Communist Party saying that "when wood is cut, chips will fly", the right were unmoved by this and other examples of people, such as Jan Kavan, who were clearly not collaborating with the police, said Novak.

On March 22, in an earlier round of screening or lustrace, fellow deputies, was named in parliament as an StB collaborator. He is a most unlikely police spy. His father Pavel was sentenced to 25 years as a traitor during the Stalinist frame-ups of the 1950s. Before and after 1968, Kavan was an active left critic of the regime and was several times detained for questioning by the political police.

In exile from 1969 to 1989, he made several illegal trips into the country to contact and help the underground opposition. His efforts ensured that many important documents, including those of Charter 77 and works by Vaclav Havel (who now refuses to meet with him or make any statement in his support), were published.

Kavan was named in reports of a former education attaché with the Czechoslovak embassy in London with whom, in his capacity as London representative of the Czechoslovak Union of Students, he met several times during 1969-70 to arrange visa extensions and other matters concerning the welfare of his compatriots studying in England.

This man was an StB agent who, presumably in order to win favour and make up for having once expressed support for the 1968 reforms, exaggerated the number of times he met Kavan and claimed to have been trying to recruit him. Those parts of the files read to the investigating committee reveal that Kavan neither knew he was dealing with an agent nor cooperated with the secret police.

In defiance of a court order, the Federal Ministry of the Interior has failed to comply with Kavan's demand that all the evidence be made public. With strong support from his constituency, he has refused to resign from parliament but, until his name is cleared, has said he will serve without pay.

People like Kavan, who remains a moderate leftist, make Klaus and others "who risked nothing to oppose the old regime" quite uncomfortable, said Novak. "Klaus, while never a Communist Party member, was a full-time worker for the state research institute. He studied abroad with the support of the Communist Party."

Former Czech environment minister Bedrich Moldan was also a victim of the March naming. He upset many, including the powerful nuclear power lobby, because he took his brief seriously. By contrast, Prime Minister Marian Calfa, who at the time of the revolution was about to become the Communist Party member responsible for the "battle against the internal enemy", and now a member of the ODS's Slovakian electoral partner, the Public Against Violence, was not named.

"When the law was passed, the right were clearly overjoyed and are now saying there will be huge purges", explained Novak. "According to Petr Uhl, this could affect 250,000 people." Others say the figure is closer to 1 million.

Although more liberal members of the government are critical of the act's harshness, President Havel, who has described the bill as "necessary but problematic", has said he will sign it in order to avoid "confrontation and chaos".

Some see the law as a way to stop the old Stalinist elite from wriggling its way into economic and political power, but that is not the motivation behind it, says Novak. He points out that the conservatives refuse to support legislation against investment of "dirty" in privatisation.

The law is "a clear expression of a political struggle between the right and other groupings", says Uhl, a Marxist who spent nine years in prison under the former regime. The right is using anticommunism as a diversion from economic issues and a way to discredit its opponents.

A recent attack by Klaus on the Social Democrats, who, he said, represent "a threat to the reform process equal to that of the Communist Party", lend weight to fears of a McCarthyist campaign.

Petr Uhl, as head of CSTK, will be required to purge employees. According to Novak, Uhl intends to follow the man in his position in 1969 who was ordered to carry out a similar purge. The man was sacked after telling the authorities they would have to find someone more stupid to carry out their policies.

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