Two decades after the collapse of the communist regimes in Europe, lustration has become an accepted transitional justice measure, whose importance to redress past injustice, allow for elite replacement, strengthen democracy, and prevent the blackmail of the new political elites is widely recognized (lustration will be adequately discussed in the Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice that I coordinate with Dr. Nadya Nedelsky). Scores of books, articles and reports have been written on this topic. Lately some authors have used lustration to refer to purges and vetting programs that took place before 1989 and outside Eastern Europe. This is why I feel that some clarifications are in order.

Lustration and purges differ significantly in several important respects, which are overlooked by authors who conflate these terms. Not that lustration is incompatible with purges. In many post-communist countries lustration and purges were implemented simultaneously (lustrating the public administration, but purging the intelligence services, for example). First, all lustration programs implemented to date have been confined to post-communist Eastern Europe. The de-Baathification program enacted in Iraq after the removal of the Saddam Hussein regime was inspired by post-communist programs, without being titled ‘lustration’. No purge outside Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union was titled so. The term was first used in a political sense in Czechoslovakia in 1991, when the Lustration Law borrowed it from the lustrace procedures, through which the communist secret political police, the StB, used to identify and root out double agents who offered information to Western intelligence agencies. Historians are mindful of not applying modern concepts to historical events. We should also refrain from describing purges with a term forged well after these purges occurred.

Second, all lustration programs have been enacted in virtue of parliamentary laws – lustration laws (specifically dedicated to vetting, as in the Czechoslovak, Hungarian, Polish, Bulgarian, Albanian, or Lithuanian cases), election laws (as in Lithuania, where election laws had lustration effects) or citizenship laws (as in Latvia and Estonia, where stringent citizenship requirements denied Russian-speaking non-Baltics a host of rights, including the right to be elected or nominated to public office, and consequently the right to represent people in the new democracy). By contrast, purges were implemented through executive decrees or decisions adopted/imposed by occupying forces. Instead of killing the former leaders, which had usually been the case, purges allowed the new, victorious rulers to sideline, demote or exile their predecessors. De-Nazification procedures enacted after World War II in Western Europe were ordered by the Allied forces with or without input from the Resistance (often animated by vengeance) or by governments returned from exile that had little understanding of how difficult had been to live under Nazi occupation. Whereas post-communist lustration laws were debated, amended, and voted in parliaments where the lustrati were well represented, purges were decided with little input from the opposition. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote, “there is no such thing as a good purge, even if it is politely called lustration,” but lustration goes a long way toward allowing the representatives of the former regime some input in deciding the scope of the vetting program.

The difference between parliament-enacted lustration and executive-decided purges also translates in different levels of discretion. It is much more difficult to amend a law, since parliaments include a wide diversity of political parties (some even representing the professional categories slated for lustration). In most Eastern European countries lustration laws were adopted within small windows of opportunity that quickly closed when the former communists, re-baptized as socialists or social democrats, won parliamentary majorities as a result of elections. By contrast, it is easier to change an executive decree, since governments are formed by far fewer political formations than those represented in parliament. The fewer the political actors involved in deciding the vetting program, the easier to adopt and change it. This is why executives could change the scope of purges more quickly and easy than parliaments could amend lustration laws. Since no laws were spelled out for most purges, whether all individuals slated to be sidelined were indeed purged depended on the discretion of the new rulers (who could add new persons to the purge list or disregard the decree in the case of individuals who quickly changed their political colors and pledged allegiance to them).

Third, all lustration programs were implemented with the declared scope of strengthening democracy, whereas purges did not have democracy as their most important declared goal. A direct connection between lustration and democracy is difficult to draw (although some studies tried to connect lustration and trust). However, we can safely say that lustration did not impede democratization (despite the strong objections raised against it by the European Court of Human Rights and some Eastern European Constitutional Courts). Countries that adopted lustration (Central Europe and the Baltic states) are more democratic than countries that did not adopt it (the Balkan countries and all former Soviet republics but Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia). By contrast, many purges left their country less democratic and have weakened the rule of law. For example, a series of purges were conducted by communist regimes immediately after they took control of Eastern Europe in the late 1940s in the hope of cutting short the careers of pre-communist public servants who remembered democratic politics. These purges were successful in this regard. The fact that lustration programs were enacted during transitions to democracies also meant that those laws were made public. That was not the case with many purges enacted by non-democratic regimes that did not make their purging decree known to the public.

Fourth, not all lustration programs have resulted in job losses. In the Czech and German model, lustration led to the removal of the lustrati from a host of public posts. They either lost their job or were demoted to less important positions that were not included in the list of lustratable posts. But the Polish model (1997) did not automatically dismiss the very few who had lied about their past collaboration with the communist secret political police, the SB. Instead, their names were published in the state gazette, for voters to decide whether they wanted to use this piece of sensitive information in elections (and not vote for the former secret collaborators). In short, not all lustration programs can be assimilated to purge-like programs, a point that is important to note, but is completely missed when lustration and purges are seen as equivalent.

Fifth, in her Transitional Justice Ruti Teitel made the point that purges traditionally affected only the very top political leaders of the ancien regime. It was only after World War II that “postwar measures expelled individuals from a broader segment of society, including sectors not previously considered part of the administration, such as education and the media.” By contrast, most lustration programs enacted to date have targeted not the top echelons of the Communist Party – whose members relinquished their political power in exchange for the chance to live the remainder of their lives in sheltered obscurity or were brought to court in order to assume responsibility for their crimes (like Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, Todor Zhivkov in Bulgaria, or Wojciech Jaruzelsky in Poland) – but the thousands of Eastern Europeans who had acted as secret informers. The nature of communist repression, the secrecy of the identity of those secret informers, the possibility that they could continue their spying activity even after the collapse of the communist regime, and the Eastern Europeans’ obsession with the details of secret operations explain why lustration targeted secret informers more than Communist Party leaders, although ultimately it was the Communist Party that controlled the secret political police, not the other way around. Equally important is the fact that post-communist lustration programs have affected a lot of sectors that were not really affected traditionally by purges (the academia, the banking sector as in Bulgaria, the lower-ranking public servants, the teachers, the mass-media, joint public-private enterprises and economic units, etc).

Sixth, most lustration programs have affected both current and future office holders, whereas purges targeted only the current office holders. Those who held public positions when the law came into effect were subject to lustration conditions, and they were lustrated either because they belonged to certain categories (associated with the ancien regime) or because they lied about their involvement with the communist regime. At the same time, the past of electoral candidates and nominees for specific positions was investigated and these individuals were prohibited from occupying those posts if their relationship with the ancien regime was proven. Purges do not include similar provisions for future bans.

Seventh, in Eastern Europe the lustrati had recourse to courts, both national and international. In many countries, lustration procedures are decided by courts, in spite of the fact that lustration is an administrative, non-judicial measure of addressing the recent past. The lustrati were able to appeal the lustration verdicts in the national courts, and the political formations representing them (usually the socialists or the social-democrats) have petitioned the Constitutional Courts against lustration. In addition, a number of Eastern Europeans affected by lustration have approached the European Court of Human Rights with complaints about both the substance and procedure of the vetting programs. Victims of purges did not have these advantages – they could not really address the courts and they had no Constitutional Court or European Court to complain to. This is the case, perhaps, because Eastern Europe democratized very late, when judicial review mechanisms and the rules of the democratic game were already instituted and clearly known.

Last, purges were mainly transitional in nature, being enacted for relatively short periods of time (of only several years), whereas lustration programs have been more lengthy, instituting the ban for periods of over five years, and even extending it indefinitely, as was the case in the Czech Republic.

Taken together, all these differences suggest that there are good reasons for continuing to make a distinction between purges and lustration.

(I wrote this text in December 2010, and revised it in January 2011. These ideas were discussed with Dr. Nadya Nedelsky. All errors are mine.)