Communist-Era Scars Haunt Poland's Politics Poland's governing twin brothers came to power two years ago, on a promise to expose former communist-era collaborators who remained in influential positions. But their effort has had mixed results.
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Communist-Era Scars Haunt Poland's Politics

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Communist-Era Scars Haunt Poland's Politics

Communist-Era Scars Haunt Poland's Politics

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Poles go to the polls today. And it appears that the voters are likely to favor the opposition party over the one that currently holds power. If they do, Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski would lose his job. And his twin brother, the president, would lose some clout.

There would be another casualty if the Kaczynski twins' grip on power loosens. Their campaign to unmask those who collaborated with Poland's former communist rulers would certainly lose steam.

NPR's Emily Harris reports from Warsaw.

EMILY HARRIS: Beata Gorczynska-Szmytkowka missed her high school final exam in 1986. She'd been thrown in jail for distributing pamphlets - illegal at that time in Poland. After the fall of communism three years later, the man who prosecuted her rose to head the regional prosecutor's office in democratic Poland.

She is convinced that people formerly employed by communist secret security services should not hold positions of authority now.

Ms. BEATA GORCZYNSKA-SZMYTKOWKA: (Through translator) The same qualities someone showed by working in that repressive system could also come into play now. I mean, dependence, being easily influenced, being a man for hire. In any public office — but especially in the justice system — that's absolutely unacceptable.

HARRIS: But thousands of ordinary people also informed on friends and family. Some, under pressure, just promised to. Gorczynska-Szmytkowka says this complicates passing judgment.

Ms. GORCZYNSKA-SZMYTKOWKA: (Through translator) I can't condemn these who collaborated to protect themselves or their families. People who signed a document and never really informed on anyone - just pretended. If I'd been in their position, I don't know. I might have done the same.

HARRIS: Just a mention of Ewa Milewicz in a secret police file led to the worst time of her life.

Ms. EWA MILEWICZ (Journalist): You know, you are accused but you are innocent.

HARRIS: A German agent posing as a student in communist Poland reported he bought illegal books from her. But the only information initially made public years later was that her name was in a file. No further context was provided. It took nearly two months before she was cleared and declared a victim rather than a suspected collaborator.

It's an important distinction not because collaborators or even former secret police employees then are punished now. Poland chose early on to exclude only people who lied about their past from public office. Then last year, the Kaczynski twins coalition passed a law requiring people in many professions, including teachers and journalists, to declare details about their past. Declarations would be checked against the secret police files. Liars could lose their jobs. Ewa Milewicz was among those who refused to sign. It was too much like the old times.

Ms. MILEWICZ: If you don't sign about your past, you couldn't be a journalist, scientist, and so. And for me that was so terrible.

HARRIS: The new law was largely struck down by Poland's highest court this summer. Law professor Wiktor Osiatynski says that ruling help made vetting -called lustration here - less of an issue in this year's campaign compared to its prominence when the Kaczynskis' party took power two years ago.

Dr. WIKTOR OSIATYNSKI (Professor of Law and Sociology, Central European University): That time it did resonate because the Kaczynski brothers made a very effective political campaign of purifying Poland. It resonated because people were so annoyed with the socialist government that ruled before them.

HARRIS: Fighting corruption is the Kaczynskis' current focus, complete with videotaped stings of politicians and even of a famous transplant surgeon. Osiatynski says promises to clean up either corruption or ex-communists through lustration plays well among Poles who feel they've unfairly become losers in the transition to capitalism.

Dr. OSIATYNSKI: This is very similar although corruption is potentially wider because, you know, even people who are against lustration were very strong on corruption.

HARRIS: There are still strong supporters of lustration including journalist Bronislaw Wildstein. Wildstein fought the communist system and learned only later that a close friend at that time was actually reporting every detail to the secret police. History, he says, is not always nice, but it is necessary.

Mr. BRONISLAW WILDSTEIN (Journalist): I'm not the first one in history who was betrayed. So very, very, very unpleasant it was for me. Real, like kind of shock.

HARRIS: But worthwhile?

Mr. WILDSTEIN: Of course, of course. I would like to prefer to know reality. I prefer to understand what happens around me.

HARRIS: All deputies elected to the Polish parliament today will be checked to see if their declarations of encounters with communist security forces are accurate. If not, they won't be allowed to take office.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Warsaw.

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