East Europe's past should not remain hidden
From the June 12, 2007 Chicago Sun-Times
June 12, 2007
by John O'Sullivan
When President Bush arrived in Prague last week on the first leg of his European tour, he chose his audience wisely and well. It was a conference of distinguished dissidents, past and present, gathered to discuss democracy as a theme and instrument of foreign policy.
Alongside iconic anti-Soviet heroes such as Natan Sharansky and Vaclav Havel were dissidents still struggling for liberty in countries from Belarus to Cuba. Saad Eddim Ibrahim, whom the Egyptian Supreme Court released from a seven-year sentence on trumped-up charges in 2003, was one. Garry Kasparov, the youngest world chess champion in history who retired two years ago to fight for Russian democracy, was another. A third was Cheol-Hwan Kang, who spent 10 years in a horrific North Korean concentration camp.
Such people are naturally sympathetic to Bush because he has spoken out forcefully in support of democracy and human rights. They gave him a thunderously warm reception. He returned the compliment: "If standing for liberty in the world makes me a dissident, I wear that title with pride."
Liberal bloggers have been erupting indignantly at this claim. Some of them regard Bush as himself little more than an apprentice dictator. But the president took some steps to justify this claim when he came to the topic of Vladimir Putin: "In Russia, reforms that once promised to empower citizens have been derailed, with troubling implications for democratic development."
It was the kind of tough talking needed in a week when Putin had been issuing threats of nuclear targeting like some unreconstructed Cold Warrior. It had an effect. By the time Bush reached Germany for the G-8 summit, Putin was offering to collaborate on the U.S. missile defense he had previously been denouncing. And the two presidents ended up smiling together.
There's the rub. Promoting democracy can never be more than one strand in a U.S. foreign policy that has to balance competing interests and values. Inevitably the dissidents will sometimes be disappointed at the gap between grand statements of principle and the grubby compromises of diplomacy.
But there are occasions when American principles do not conflict with overriding U.S. national interests. These offer opportunities for the United States to justify the faith of Havel, Sharansky, Kasparov, and others in America's practical idealism. One such occasion -- and an opportunity so far neglected -- is the failure of Eastern Europe to hold any real inquest into the crimes of communism. Few trials have been held of leaders of the previous totalitarian regimes. Torturers live more or less comfortably on state pensions. Parties and individuals who held high office under communism and baptized themselves as "social democrats" in 1988-89 now hold high office again in post-communist governments.
There are understandable reasons for this. The final stage of European communism was a gradual collapse. No one wanted a civil war or purges. The desire for "social peace" alongside a democratic revolution was widespread. The result was, in broad terms, a deal: The dissidents went from prison into government, and the communists went from government into business. Sometimes they privatized state industries into their own pockets. Many have used that semi-stolen wealth to win back political power.
This creates an unpleasant political atmosphere of unease and distrust. Democracy is undermined; it looks like just another political racket. Dissidents feel that their sacrifices were half in vain. Secret police spies are exposed but, because there is no process of either justice or reconciliation, no catharsis follows. Instead, whole nations become wounded and cynical.
Ultimately, this problem of legitimacy will die off as the generation of communist careerists dies off. It could happen even faster if films like this year's Foreign Film Oscar winner, "The Lives of Others," continue to be made. This story of how a loyal Stasi officer, following orders to bug the private lives of an East German playwright and his actress girlfriend, is himself gradually transformed into a decent man by what he learns of their life and love, is reminding people throughout Eastern Europe of what communism was like.
But it will require political leadership if these emotions are to crystallize into an actual policy for remembering, judging and thus transcending the totalitarian past. The United States could begin this process by proposing, ideally in combination with the EU and such bodies as the Council of Europe, the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission modeled on those in Chile and South Africa.
It would be a tribute to the dissidents of the past and an encouragement to those of the future. Instead of frustrating U.S. interests, it might actually advance them. And justice in some measure would be done.
John O'Sullivan was a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and editor-at-large of National Review.