Czech Republic one step closer to creation of a national memorial institute

Seventeen years after the fall of the Communist regime, the Czech Republic will soon take a major step towards coming to terms with its past. After three hours of heated debate on Wednesday, the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill establishing an institute that will gather material and analyse the country's totalitarian history - from the Nazi occupation in 1939 to the end of the Communist era five decades later.

Social Democrats leaving the room before the vote,  photo: CTK
Neighbouring Poland and Slovakia already have a national memorial institute; plans for a Czech equivalent have faced opposition from the Communists and the Social Democrats. But on Wednesday, 92 of the 118 deputies present gave the bill the green light. They were all centre and right-of-centre MPs. The Communists opposed the bill and, with the exception of two party deputies who abstained, all Social Democrats present left the room before the vote was held.

If the Senate approves the bill as expected and it is signed by the president, all documents and archive material relating to the totalitarian years between 1938 and 1989 will be moved under one roof and made accessible to the public by the end of the year. Unlike Slovakia's National Memorial Institute, the bill calls for the creation of an Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes and a subsidiary, an Archive of Intelligence Files.

Civic Democrat MP Marek Benda says it is the country's duty to make an effort in analysing and learning from mistakes made in the past:

"Slovakia and Poland keep on being mentioned as examples but we need to understand that our case differs from theirs in one specific area. Here, screening processes were introduced well before our two neighbours started dealing with their past. We even had the names of agents published - first through the unofficial list compiled by [anti-communist Petr] Cibulka and then the official list made public by the Interior Ministry. So, this is not what we should be concentrating on. Our institute's task should be to clarify how the system of repressive organs worked. It should be made accessible in publications and in specialist history books. This is very important, in order to prevent us from ever ending up in the same situation in the future."

Once the bill is passed, the ministries of interior, defence, and justice as well as the military and civic secret services will have seven months to give up all documents in their archives.

Among those against this idea is former interior minister and Social Democrat MP Frantisek Bublan; he fears it would cause more harm than good if the country dug into its totalitarian past and declassified documents:

Frantisek Bublan
"Since I worked in the intelligence service and have seen some of the files, I know that they could cause great damage. I am not thinking of economic damage - if for example it came to light that the Communist secret intelligence stole patents and so on. But the damage I'm talking about affects peoples' lives. Foreign nationals also worked as intelligence service agents, for example. These people are still alive today, some live in European countries. If their identity is revealed then their lives are in danger. That is why I proposed to extend the period in which all the information is analysed before it is declassified but unfortunately my proposal was not approved."

Under the bill, a seven-member council is responsible for the institute's tasks. The council will be appointed by the Senate, where the Civic Democrats currently enjoy a majority, from candidates put forward by the Chamber of Deputies, as well as the President and resistance fighter and political prisoner associations. In the heated discussion that preceded the vote, left-wing deputies expressed fears that the institute would be too costly and could be influenced by political pressure.

Both council membership and leading positions in the institute will be off limits to people who were members or candidates for positions in the pre-revolution communist party, secret police, or intelligence service. Some Social Democrat MPs have already indicated that their party could file a complaint with the Constitutional Court.