Thursday, 3 September 2009

Full access to secret files being debated in Hungary

Hungarians continue to debate the opening of secret files, twenty years after the end of the communist era. One opposition MEP says it is time the country faced up to its unpleasant past.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY. REUTERS - Twenty years after the change of regime in Hungary, many of the files of the former communist era are still unavailable to the public.
The Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security hold most of the files of the former interior intelligence department of the secret services, which dealt with spying on fellow Hungarians. But a large section of the files is still kept by the secret services, and many of the stored files cannot be fully accessed even by the victims concerned.

Unlike other ex-communist countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary has not revealed the names of secret police collaborators from the communist era. Attempts to pass a law that would open up all files have repeatedly failed over the past decades. Several versions of laws were passed but all with strict data and personality protection limits.

Last year, a so-called "dossier law" proposal was tabled to parliament which aimed to open up all files to the public with very little national security limits. A committee of historians and secret service experts was given the task to evaluate the transfer of secret service documents up to 1990, to investigate what happened to these documents since then, and to prepare suggestions for a new law. But for over a year the work of the committee has been stalled as well as the work for a new law.

"I cannot name any other eastern or central eastern European country where the uncovering of the past, the knowledge of history would have such deficiencies, and be as disregarded as in Hungary," said Janos Kenedi, secret service expert and head of the committee.

Now an MEP of the largest opposition party Fidesz has come up with a new approach, calling for the state to release all documents to the people affected by them without them having to apply for the documents.

Tamas Deutsch says a truly democratic state must provide all Hungarian citizens the information that was gathered about them by the secret services.

"The state - instead of saying to the citizen, come to me and if I am very nice I will show you what I have - it should collect all information, for example on citizen Tamas Deutsch from the documents left from the communist times, and send that information to the citizen whether they ask for it or not. And in a way that nothing is covered up," he told Reuters Television.

Deutsch says if his party wins general elections next year, one of its priorities will be the release of all the secret files.

But historian and director of Budapest's House of Terror Museum worries that revealing all the files would come at a high price.

"I'm not sure that children and grandchildren should be reading such documents about their grandparents or parents that were made by the AVO, because we don't know how true these documents are. We don't know how much fabrication is in them, we don't know how much dirt got into these documents that could have been only tricks to put pressure on people under interrogation, and so on," Maria Schmidt said.

The AVO was the Communist State Security Office.

Many also argue that since a large number of files were destroyed or stolen just before the change of regime, the full truth would still not emerge.

Finding out what the files reveal about friends being collaborators can be very hard indeed, says Kenedi who himself had to face up to one of his close friends having spied on him for years.

"Those months badly tortured me when I had to keep guessing whether it was true that Sandor Tar whose writings I respected and whose personality I liked could have been an informant on me for a very long time. The psychological consequences of that should be written down sometime but I'm not sure whether I'd ever be able to write about it," he said.

At present, files kept in the archives can only be opened on the basis of individual review by archive staff to people who fear they were spied upon. or to historians who have official backing for their research. But even then, they are bound by a web of limitations of access and publication.

But over the years there have been several leaks. Online publications exposed famous Hungarians as communist informants, including Hungary's Oscar winner film director, Istvan Szabo and Cardinal Laszlo Paskai. In 2006 a political analyst company, Political Capital, published a list of some 60 former agents and bosses on the internet, including a police chief, and a well-known mayor.

Deutsch says his proposal would put an end to such manipulations and the problems of the past twenty years.

"For once and for all it would stop the former communist secret services continuing to operating like an informal network. We would be able to face up the rather unpleasant heritage of our recent past, and it would at last lead to a kind of self-cleansing because everyone could know the collaborators in their surrounding circles, or God forbid, family," he said.

But the head of the Historical Archives of the Hungarian State Security says most of the available files are already accessible, and that with the destruction of many of the documents, it is not possible to know a great deal more than at present.

"Among the remaining 7% of the unreleased documents that are being released gradually every three years I would say most likely we will find another 20 agents. But will that change the world? From the historical research point of view, I feel that based on the hundreds of thousands of high office documents and interrogation documents the historical reconstruction can be already done on the basis of these materials," Gyorgy Gyarmati said.

The Archive holds about 60 million pages of documents that contain some 240,000 names, both victims and informants, out of the average population of 10 million. But because of the missing files the archives are only able to identify about 10,000 agents out of the estimated 200,000 who worked for the regime.

Gyarmati says that with 93% of all remaining secret services files available, very little is left. But the head of the expert committee that investigated the withheld documents says that figure is significantly higher.

"At the moment the amount of unreleased files is 27% of the remaining secret services files but they are reluctant to release or even admit this. It would be possible to put an end to the secrecy madness in Hungary with one stroke of a pen, all you'd need is a pen," Kenedi said.

Whether the withheld secret documents and the ones held in the archives will ever be fully opened up now depends on the outcome of the next elections and the willingness of the politicians to carry through the new proposals.

Some say it may all now be too late, and ordinary people have stopped caring about it.

"I think people don't have the time or the mood to get to know the past era and therefore they have no knowledge of it and cannot make good decisions about it," said one visitor to the House of Terror Museum, Zoltan Szepesi.