Since it was established six years ago the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes has provided unprecedented public access to secret files once held by the security apparatus of communist Czechoslovakia. But it’s been a troubled institution, under constant political pressure and plagued by in-fighting. And now it’s in turmoil again, after the latest director was sacked.
When Daniel Herman – a former Catholic priest and anti-communist dissident - was elected to lead the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes in 2010, he was the body’s fourth director in as many years. Initially his appointment appeared to bring calm to troubled waters, and he continued in the mammoth task of overseeing the digitalisation of kilometres of paper files so they can be more easily accessed online.
But on Wednesday he was summarily dismissed by the six-member supervisory board, who complained that his management was chaotic and digitalisation was proceeding too slowly. Critics immediately blamed political influence; especially the presence of newly-elected board members nominated by the opposition Social Democrats.
Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová, head of the Yes For Europe NGO, was one of the student leaders who led the 1989 anti-communist demonstrations. She told Radio Prague Daniel Herman was the victim of a political witch hunt:
“I would say that for the last six months it’s all looked like a political show trial, because it was first decided in September and October that Mr Herman would be removed. There followed a horrible campaign against him where the new members of the council – every time they came to the meeting – were interrogating him as if they were a secret police investigation commission rather than a board.”
The Institute was meant to serve as the guardian of the nation’s darkest memories, collecting, organising, studying and opening up millions upon millions of pages of documents gathered by the secret police before 1989. Today anyone can walk in and browse through virtually any secret police file – not just their own. That level of access is not to everyone’s liking, especially not the left. But the chairwoman of the supervisory board Petruška Šustrová – herself a former dissident – told Czech Television accusations the board had succumbed to political pressure were laughable:
“Look, I managed to withstand such pressure in the days of the totalitarian regime, so I really can’t imagine a politician today would dare to exert such pressure on me. I certainly wouldn’t advise it.”
The Institute has always been a political project – created and supported by politicians on the right, grudgingly tolerated but frequently criticised by the Social Democrats and loathed by the Communists. Critics like Monika MacDonagh-Pajerová warn the Czech body could face the same fate as that of neighbouring Slovakia, which was starved of funds by leftist leader Robert Fico and which observers say is now largely irrelevant.
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