Decommunization is the process of dismantling the legacies of communist state establishments, culture, and psychology in the post-communist countries. It is sometimes referred to as political cleansing. The term is most commonly applied to the former countries of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union to describe a number of legal and social changes during their periods of postcommunism after the Cold War.
In some states, decommunization includes bans on communist symbols. While sharing common traits, the processes of decommunization have run differently in different states.
Prosecution of former communists
Lustration came to refer to government policies of limiting the participation of former communists, and especially informants of the communist secret police, in the successor political appointee positions or even in civil service positions.
Persecutions and prosecutions of communist state leaders
- Afghanistan – Mohammad Najibullah was never convicted of a crime, but was nonetheless tortured and executed by the Taliban in 1996.
- Bulgaria – Todor Zhivkov was initially sentenced to seven years in prison, but transferred to house arrest due to health reasons. He was later declared innocent by the Supreme Court of Bulgaria in 1996 and was released from house arrest shortly thereafter. He died as a free man one year later.
- Cambodia – Kang Kek Iew is so far the only indicted Khmer Rouge leader, despite him having died convicted in 2020, while Pol Pot and others lived free without charges.
- East Germany – Erich Honecker was arrested, but soon released and the proceedings against him were abandoned due to his ill health. He died in 1994. Several other members of the former East German government, such as Egon Krenz, were nonetheless convicted.
- Poland – Wojciech Jaruzelski avoided most court appearances, citing poor health, and was never convicted. He died as a free man in 2014 and was buried with full military honors at the Powązki Military Cemetery, attended by the incumbent president of Poland, as well as two former presidents.
- Romania – Nicolae Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena Ceaușescu were sentenced to death and executed by firing squad.
Communist parties outside the Baltic states were not outlawed and their members were not prosecuted. Just a few places attempted to exclude even members of communist secret services from decision-making. In a number of countries, the communist party simply changed its name and continued to function.
Stephen Holmes of the University of Chicago argued in 1996 that after a period of active decommunization, it was met with a near-universal failure. After the introduction of lustration, demand for scapegoats has become relatively low, and former communists have been elected for high governmental and other administrative positions. Holmes notes that the only real exception was former East Germany, where thousands of former Stasi informers have been fired from public positions.
Holmes suggests the following reasons for the turnoff of decommunization:
- After 45–70 years of Communist state rule, nearly every family has members associated with the state. After the initial desire "to root out the reds" came a realization that massive punishment is wrong and finding only some guilty is hardly justice.
- The urgency of the current economic problems of postcommunism makes the crimes of the communist past "old news" for many citizens.
- Decommunization is believed to be a power game of elites.
- The difficulty of dislodging the social elite makes it require a totalitarian state to disenfranchise the "enemies of the people" quickly and efficiently and a desire for normalcy overcomes the desire for punitive justice.
- Very few people have a perfectly clean slate and so are available to fill the positions that require significant expertise.