Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Introduction

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Introduction

Article excerpt

When a totalitarian group seizes power, whether by parliamentary maneuver or by force, one of the first institutions created is a secret political police. Since the birth of modern totalitarianism, in country after country, these secret political police organizations became one of the predominant instruments of one-party rule. In every totalitarian government, secret police were an indispensable device for the consolidation of power, neutralization of the opposition, and construction of a single-party state. More recent history shows that when totalitarian regimes liberalize or collapse, the secret political police nonetheless tend to survive. This issue of Demokratizatsiya contains articles that discuss this survival tendency, exploring how former Communist countries have dealt with the secret political police agencies when building new democratic societies in the post-cold war era.

Our concern here is only with the political police, commonly known as the "secret police," in a former totalitarian system. In most Communist governing structures, the secret police organization was part of a much larger security and intelligence apparatus. The Soviet KGB, for example, was primarily responsible for the perpetuation of the Communist Party elite--hence its large informant and dissident-hunting networks. It also performed legitimate roles essential to any country's security; in addition to enforcing one-party rule, the KGB also conducted foreign intelligence and both civilian and military counterintelligence, fulfilled border security functions, engaged in communications and electronic intelligence, and ensured the physical security of government officials and buildings. Therefore, when we speak of dismantling and uprooting a secret police network, we are referring not to stripping a country of its legitimate ability to fight crime and ensure national security, but to removing the impediments to democracy, transparency, and accountability left by the country's totalitarian past.

It is important to note that even most of the legitimate functions performed by security services have historically been prone to manipulation by both the ruling party and an elite bureaucratic mindset inconsistent with democratic values. In many totalitarian states, the legitimate security functions were taken over by the secret political police, which then imbued the legitimate services with secret police cachet--a carefully cultivated mentality of elitism and impunity that must be rooted out if the organization is to work in the service of a new, democratic order. The old organs' ability to fight corruption, terrorism, weapons proliferation, or organized crime--though they might hold a monopoly on the personnel capable of such work--might be compromised, perhaps irreparably, because of the impunity with which they had been vested under the old order. In many cases, the totalitarian security and intelligence organs were not servants of the national government or even the ruling elites, but of a previous totalitarian colonial power. Uprooting the old political police may also require a parallel uprooting of a foreign intelligence service that acted as a tool of a foreign imperial power, agent of organized crime, or sponsor of international terrorism.

Secret police are not unique to totalitarian regimes. They have existed in various forms for centuries, and even in some Western European countries. Secret police are indispensable to autocrats and dictators around the world, or anywhere that ruling special interests are troubled by trade unions, peasant movements, religious believers, cultural minorities, or other challenges to the established order. We have heard much about uprooting such systems and holding human rights abusers accountable in places such as Argentina, Chile, El Salvador, and apartheid South Africa. Almost nowhere, however, has there been a discussion about doing the same in former Communist countries. Although the uprooting of totalitarian structures in former Latin American dictatorships and South Africa's apartheid regime have been considered essential for national reconciliation and democratic renewal, the same has not held true for the former Communist countries, including Nicaragua. …

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