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Ex-communist purge bumps up against EU values

A Lithuanian law serves as a litmus test for what punishments Europe will tolerate against former collaborators.

When Kestutis Dziautas enrolled in Moscow's KGB college in 1985, he wasn't aware, he says, of the Soviet secret police's role in executing and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of fellow Lithuanians decades earlier. Likewise, he says, he didn't know that KGB agents were still the feared foot soldiers of a ruthless regime.

But neither his claim of naiveté, nor the fact that he spent only four months working for the KGB before the fall of communism, was enough to spare him: A 1999 law aimed at punishing and rooting out ex-KGB operatives like Mr. Dziautas banned them from a wide range of public- and private-sector jobs for 10 years.

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So Dziautas and three comrades took their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg – and won. In 2004 and 2005 verdicts, the court declared Lithuania's "KGB Act" a violation of the European Convention of Human Rights, specifically the right to work.

"I didn't kill anyone, I didn't deport anyone, I didn't commit genocide. I felt like a rabbit upon which they were experimenting, making an example out of me," says Dziautas, who says he was relegated to fishing and picking mushrooms.

Now, Lithuania is under mounting pressure from the Council of Europe to amend its law or face sanctions when the Council's Committee of Ministers reconvenes in October. The Lithuanian parliament is leery of how the issue, debated again in early April without resolution, may tarnish the reputation of one of the EU's newer members.

Cases like Dziautas's highlight the struggle Lithuania and others in Central and Eastern Europe face, years into the postcommunist transition: if and how to punish those who persecuted on behalf of a cruel dictatorship and how to make peace with the past and move forward.

Concern about EU values

With the independence of former communist states came payback, but also a need to adhere to European norms and act according to accepted laws, even when dealing with the past. Lithuania's response to the Strasbourg verdicts – to which it's bound as an EU member – serves as a litmus test for what punishments Europe will tolerate against former collaborators.

Fellow Baltic countries Latvia and Estonia require public-sector workers to declare an "oath of conscience" about whether they collaborated with the KGB, or risk exposure.

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The brightest spotlight, however, is on Poland, the largest of all new EU members. Convulsed in January by revelations that the Archbishop of Warsaw had long been an informant, Poland passed a law requiring some 700,000 Poles – including many in the private sector – to come clean about past ties to the secret police. If the new law unleashes a purge, some may challenge its legality.

"There is a certain scare that Poland just may act in a way that would be injurious to EU values," says Hugo Brady, a research fellow at the Center for European Reform in London.

The East "can act like real Westerners, but they still have this brutal Soviet mentality, where nobody trusts anybody and everybody was guilty," says Nikolai Meinert, managing editor of New Horizons, a magazine about the Baltics based in Helsinki, Finland.

Dziautas and other ex-KGB agents garner little sympathy at home, accused by some of having gamed the system by exploiting the levers of democracy and taking the state to court.

"Even if they were only a cog in the machinery, this is about moral responsibility for their actions," says Arvydas Anasauskas, director of the state Genocide and Resistance Research Department. He asserts that anyone who was accepted to the prestigious KGB college had to prove loyalty, such as informing on friends or colleagues.

Moreover, the issue is typically used as a weapon – in Lithuania as elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe – by a nationalist right-wing pandering to its base by pummeling the left-wing, the historic heir to the Communist Party.

"I think this issue will come up again and again, as long as former communists of any seniority are still around," says Anatol Lieven, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington and author of "The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence."

Small fry caught in the fray

In 1999, a stridently anti-Russian Lithuanian government branded the entire KGB "a criminal organization," thus making any former operative guilty. (Files detailing operatives' level of involvement are in Russia's possession.)

Caught up in the fight were small fry like Dziautas, who, after his short stint as a KGB staffer, spent eight years working in the prosecutor general's office of the newly independent Lithuania. Fellow plaintiff Jonas Sidabras, a former KGB major, is now barred from working with children. "Ten years in jail would have been better than to live like this," he says.

But "the bigger fish were never caught," says Henrikas Mickevicius, executive director of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. "So it left a bad taste that it was definitely for revenge and not good for the moral health of society."

In 2005, the European Court awarded each of the four plaintiffs €7,000 in damages. This February, a Lithuanian court rejected Dziautas's plea for an additional €29,000 in compensation. Still, under European pressure, some Lithuanian lawmakers say it's inevitable that they'll amend the "KGB Law" before its 2009 expiration.

Julius Sabatauskas, chairman of the parliament's committee on legal affairs and whose own parents were deported to Siberia, says he'll try to end the legislative acts of vengeance. "It seems we're just creating new problems for ourselves instead of moving forward," he says.