Eastern Europe Struggles to Purge Security Services

By CRAIG S. SMITH

New York Times

December 12, 2006

BUCHAREST, Romania — Communism is gone and democracy is well implanted in the countries of the old Warsaw Pact, but the Soviet era’s security services are still sending shudders through the region nearly two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The case of Alexander V. Litvinenko, the former K.G.B. agent who was poisoned in London in November, would not seem out of place here, where a death threat in Romania, a suicide in Bulgaria and unbroken silence on several unsolved murders provide clues to the continued presence of the secret services today.

Some members of the secret police remain in place. Others took advantage of the state-asset fire sale that came with the dismantling of centrally planned economies and are now quietly powerful players.

“In ’89, only Communism was killed, but the former state security and Communist Party chiefs took the economic power,” said Marius Oprea, president of the Institute for the Investigation of the Crimes of Communism, a Romanian government group.

As a result, the files that documented many of the era’s darkest deeds, from blackmail to torture to assassination, have remained closed — and few of the agents and informers whose reports fattened the folders of the services have ever been identified.

But that is changing with the advent of new governments that have displaced those more closely associated with the old Communists, and with pressure from the European Union. A renewed effort is under way across the former Soviet bloc to expose the continued role of the security services and to root out former police agents and collaborators.

The effort is not without risks. In November, Bozhidar Doychev, the man who oversaw Bulgaria’s most sensitive secret service archives, was found dead at his desk, with a bullet in his head from his own handgun.

His death was ruled a suicide, but many people have linked it to efforts by some in the government to identify public figures who worked with the country’s former Committee for State Security.

Mr. Oprea, a friend of Mr. Litvinenko’s, has experienced the threat up close.

On a Romanian street in his hometown, Brazov, a man approached him last year and warned that his toddler son could come to harm if he continued to “push things.”

“They are not happy when you start to dig into what happened after 1989,” said Mr. Oprea, who sent his family to live in Germany after the man’s warning.

Most of Central and Eastern Europe’s former Communist countries tried to purge their societies of Soviet-era secret police and informers in the aftermath of Communism’s collapse. But the closer they were to Russia, the less effective their purges were.

While many of the region’s new political leaders look decisively to the West for their future, some former Communists and the secret services that served them are drawn to the revitalized power of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and his F.S.B., the successor to the K.G.B.

East Germany and the Czech Republic were the most successful with their purges after 1989, opening secret police files and screening public figures for past collaboration with the intelligence services. Poland screened tens of thousands of people in the early 1990s, but the process lost steam — until the nationalist Law and Justice Party came to power last year and revived it.

Bulgaria is only now beginning to confront the past of its secret police, who have been implicated in plots ranging from the murder of a Bulgarian dissident, Georgi I. Markov, with a poison-tipped umbrella on Waterloo Bridge in London in 1978 to an attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II in 1981.

But nowhere has the struggle between the former secret services and the forces for change been as intense as in Romania, now poised to join the European Union.

Before 1989, Romania’s Securitate was one of the Eastern bloc’s largest secret police forces in proportion to its population. Under the oppressive regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, it was also among the most brutal. An estimated 11,000 agents and a half-million informers watched millions of Romanian citizens, hundreds of thousands of whom were imprisoned for political reasons. Some were killed.

While the heads of the secret services have been changed and the services have been reorganized, much of the rank and file remains, now with ties to a powerful business elite.

Earlier this year, for example, the Justice Ministry disbanded its secret service, the General Directorate for Protection and Anti-Corruption. The organization had been wiretapping judges and gathering other information, “which we do not really know ended up where or with whom,” the justice minister, Monica Macovei, told local newspapers.

The service was set up in 2001 by Marian Ureche, a former Securitate colonel who resigned in 2003 after the local news media disclosed his secret police past. He was one of 1,600 former Securitate officers “who continued to hold key posts in the intelligence services established after 1989,” according to an anonymous 2002 report published by Romania’s Ziua newspaper and never challenged by the security services.

Many of the most powerful businessmen in Romania have links to the Securitate, even if they deny having benefited from such relationships — something that is, by its nature, difficult to prove.

Silvian Ionescu, the country’s top environmental official, was a former high-ranking Securitate officer who became wealthy after Communism’s fall through various business deals.

Dan Voiculescu, a media mogul and president of the Conservative Party, denied for years that he had Securitate ties and successfully sued several journalists for suggesting otherwise. But earlier this year, the National Council for the Study of the Securitate Archives, a government group that is checking the pasts of elected officials, civil servants and members of civil society, announced that Mr. Voiculescu had indeed acted as a secret police informer under the code name Felix.

Mr. Voiculescu has since admitted that he collaborated, though only “two or three times for economic espionage.” He said others involved with the Securitate stole assets or used their connections in other ways to accumulate wealth.

The first government not closely linked to the former Communists came to power in 1996 and passed a law requiring that the secret police archives be opened. But the government changed hands and lustration, as the process of exposing past Communist agents is called, stalled.

After years of delays, the security services are starting to turn over files to the National Council.

Those records under the council’s control fill about 10 miles of shelf space — roughly 1.8 million individual files. Romanians can request a copy of their file, if it exists, allowing them a sometimes cathartic look into the work of their tormentors.

In the city of Ploeste, Vasile Paraschiv, a 78-year-old former factory worker, holds up a six-inch stack of photocopies. The papers document the Securitate’s efforts to have him permanently committed to a psychiatric hospital because of his political views.

“I didn’t want to be a Communist Party member anymore,” he explained.

Mr. Paraschiv managed to win a court case in 1977 that allowed him to receive treatment at home, though he was sent to psychiatric hospitals on other occasions and forced to take antipsychotic drugs for years.

But the security services have not yet turned over all of the files, and there is widespread suspicion that the most important ones are being withheld.

“We don’t have any idea how many there are,” said Claudiu-Octavian Secasiu, president of the National Council. He thinks there are hundreds of thousands of files still in the hands of the secret services, based on an intelligence report from 1994.

The security services have until the end of the year to finish transferring the files, but confidence in the process is very low.

Vladimir Tismaneanu, a professor of politics at the University of Maryland who was appointed by President Traian Basescu to head a commission looking into Romania’s Communist past, complains that “there are still institutions, primarily the secret services, that hold back despite presidential intervention and will not deliver files in their possession.”

Mr. Tismaneanu said that despite presidential support, he has failed to get information on several Communist-era deaths blamed on the Securitate, including two possible poisonings of Radio Free Europe directors with radioactive thalium in the 1980s and the shooting of a Ceausescu critic in Chicago in 1991.

“We were told the files didn’t exist,” Mr. Tismaneanu said. “I don’t believe it.”

The council has succeeded in turning up a handful of informers among public figures, but most were minor players who, some say, lacked the clout to keep their files hidden or were victims of political sabotage.

The case that has drawn the most attention is that of former culture minister and Parliament member Mona Musca, who was thrown out of the Liberal Party after it was revealed that she had worked for the Securitate monitoring foreign students at the University of Timisoara, beginning in 1977. She says she was targeted because she was a popular politician and a potential rival of the country’s prime minister.

The file of Mr. Voiculescu of the Conservative Party was found just after he was nominated to become deputy prime minister. The news blocked his move and his party recently withdrew from the governing coalition.

“Instead of opening the files in the 1990s, the people in power kept them because they could be used for blackmail,” Mr. Voiculescu said, adding that as long as there are files in the secret services hands, “that can go on forever.”

It may be impossible to clarify the past until all interested parties have disappeared from the field.

Corneliu Turianu, a Communist-era judge who is one of the council’s 11 members, flips through a thick stack of paper at his Bucharest home, running his finger down the lists of vetted names, looking for his own.

“There are always new files appearing,” he said, pausing to pour a visitor a glass of Scotch with shaking hands. He said the process will continue until those who were adults before 1989 are dead. “Then,” he said, “nature will take its course.”