Czechoslovakia in 1991: What to do with former secret police collaborators?

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One of the most passionate debates in Czechoslovakia in the first years after the fall of communism was over what to do with people who had collaborated with the secret police – the StB – or had held prominent functions in the Communist Party. In 1991 the so-called “screening law” was passed, under which former StB collaborators were prevented from holding certain senior posts – for example in academia or in the civil service. At the time Radio Prague invited two Czech politicians into the studio: the left-of-centre member of the Federal Parliament, Jan Kavan, and the leader of the small right-wing Conservative Party, Jiří Kotas. Here is an extract from the debate, starting with Jiří Kotas, who was strongly in favour of the law:

“By and large I really feel that this law will make it quite clear who is who in Czechoslovakia, and it’s very important, especially at this point of the political and economic transformation of this country.”

Radio Prague: “Over to Jan Kavan now: What do you feel about the basic need for such a law?”

Jan Kavan
“I do actually agree with the basic need and I think I was one of the first people to argue for such a law.”

But at this point in the discussion the consensus ended. Despite his initial support, Jan Kavan had voted against the bill in parliament. The reason was an amendment passed to extend the original bill to cover anyone who had been on the StB lists, whether or not their conduct had been proven to suppress the rights of others. Jan Kavan argued that this was reverting to the principle of collective guilt:

“Because this law is based on collective guilt, ignores the presumption of innocence and brands people without giving them any right of defence, that’s why – and it’s the only reason why – I’m against this particular version of the law. But I am, I stress, for a mechanism – a legal mechanism – which will protect the new democratic institutions of this country from people who would want to harm it and reverse the process.”

Jiří Kotas in 1994, photo: CTK
But Jiří Kotas argued that, if anything, the law hadn't gone far enough, and he claimed that it should have come earlier - not a full two years after the fall of communism:

“I think this was caused by lack of political will, because this law in my view would be more justified if it had been passed last August or last September [1990]. I think it’s also part of the pre-election campaign to pass laws at this point and not sooner. I think that by and large it is necessary to clear who is who. I repeat again – who is who – because in this country it is so fuzzy in a number of cases.”

But Jan Kavan’s view was that the law would clarify nothing. At the time he himself was fighting rumours, based on the secret police files, that he had been a collaborator.

“I resent this law also personally, because, without giving me any possibility of defending myself, it puts me in the same bag as those who imprisoned my father, who sent agents to put me under surveillance for 20 years – people against whom I spent most of my life working. And it doesn’t give me a legal right to go to court and ask the court to evaluate, sentence by sentence, the authenticity and truthfulness of what some secret service official, 20 years ago, put in his report to his superiors about me.”

Some years later a Czech court did rule that Kavan had not been an StB informer, and nearly a decade after that interview, he went on to become Foreign Minister in Miloš Zeman’s Social Democratic government.

Today the screening law of 1991 continues to apply - and to arouse controversy. From time to time it still hits the headlines, when some prominent public figure has to leave his or her post, as their links with the old secret police emerge.

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