Producing Truth: The Politics of Investigating Past Human Rights Violations in Post-Communist States

Article excerpt

When new elites take power from a repressive regime, how do they redefine the past to strengthen their political power? Although the political science literature goes a long way in investigating the causes and processes of revolution and institutional change, significant questions concerning "what comes next" have fallen by the wayside. Instead, theoretical work carried out by political scientists (see, for example, Huntington 1994; O'Donnell and Schmitter 1994) is swept into a messy corner, a vague interdisciplinary discussion of "transitional justice." It is unclear why this is the case. By exploring how new leaders use truth processes in post-repressive states to strengthen their political positions, this article aims to return political mechanisms to the political science discipline.

Truth processes--efforts at clarifying past human rights abuses--have since the 1980s become a common feature of transitional justice. Although scholarly analyses focus on the effects of these processes on former victims and perpetrators, there is a lack of understanding of how they affect those who control the processes. I argue that ruling elites in post-repressive states use truth processes as an instrument to transform the national identity. They do this by carving new "foundation myths" out of historic events, demonstrating ways in which they personally embody past national suffering and elevating the status of their own unique traumas. The type of truth commission put into place--and therefore the type of truth produced--depends on leaders' approaches to the challenges of truth processes. In this article I apply this argument to three post-Communist states-Poland, Serbia, and Uzbekistan--exploring how "truth production" serves as a means by which new regimes enhance their political power.


Truth commissions--officially sanctioned, temporary bodies established to clarify past abuses--are frequently cited as a third way between criminal prosecutions and blanket amnesties (Hayner 1996a; Hayner 1996b; Sieff and Wright 1999). Truth processes emerged as an effort to balance normative demands for accountability with political constraints arising from the absence of all-out military victory (Teitel 2003), but truth commissions vary greatly in shape and function (Crocker 1999; Graybill 1999; Hayner 2001). Transitional justice scholars frequently emphasize restorative functions of truth commissions by putting all social actors on even footing and encouraging peaceful coexistence (Crocker 1999; O'Donnell and Schmitter 1994; Hayner 2001). Commissions can also be retributive, a form of public shame for past violators (Cohen 1995; Shweder 2003; Riezler 1943; Zalaquett 1994). By rewriting history in ways that expose the old regime's responsibility for (formerly denied) rights violations, new democratic leaders can push former rulers to the political periphery.

Although truth-commission analyses normally focus on how former victims or perpetrators are affected, there is a lack of analysis on the effects of truth processes on those who impose and control them. I argue that, besides allowing new elites to attack opponents, truth processes provide new leaders with an opportunity to reposition their own history, as well as that of their foes, and create foundation myths that are useful in more subtly generating public sympathy and, ultimately, in consolidating power. Like nationalists, new political elites can use history to forge cultural and political ties between existing groups. Using Smith's (1995) archaeology metaphor, political leaders dig through layers of time to pull out relevant histories, symbols, and common roots (mythical or real). They follow a simple three-point methodology: rediscovery of significant historical events, politically advantageous reinterpretation of those events, and mobilization of the masses around these newly defined events. New elites use history as a tool to inspire and rally their publics, stressing the periods and events that most contribute to their end goals. …