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Apology – All is Relative. Stories of Acknowledgment, Hesitation and Denial after Communism

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With the emergence of transitional justice, the recognition of past wrongdoings moved from the realm of personal relationships into the domain of public discourse. Nowadays it is not only individuals but also presidents, parliaments and religious institutions that apologize for past mistakes. This paper centres on official apology as a mechanism of transitional justice and reflects on concrete acts of symbolic reparation. The examples analysed come from the region of Central and Eastern Europe where the acknowledgement of crimes and repression under the communist regimes is discussed as an important step in transitional justice necessitated by the peculiarities of these regimes and the resulting social needs.



The world is still a dangerous, stressful and unpredictable place in which we live. We face new challenges, we stand up to new, faceless enemies, and we struggle to survive crises that we never thought would come to pass. At the same time, on a more positive note, our rights as human beings are now codified in international and national law, and we have at our disposal a greater audience to which we can voice our concerns and more institutions to which we can address our demands for justice. Continuing the optimistic tone of this introduction, I would say that it is also becoming increasingly difficult for our tormentors to remain at large. With a historic first verdict in March 2012 against the war criminal Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the International Criminal Court made a strong statement about its intention to prosecute human rights violators in the future.1 Last year was also marked by a major breakthrough for international justice – the arrest of the Bosnian Serb General Radko Mladic.

Furthermore, other developments around the world support the argument that the trail of justice never grows cold, for they pertain to events that happened not in the last decade or two, but much earlier. For example, although the workings of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal2 so far cannot be described as smooth, this hybrid court recently produced its first sentence. Kaing Guek Eav received life in prison and, despite the fact that Pol Pot is dead and the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia more than thirty years ago, the trial of the former prison commander provided a forum for remorse, truth and retribution. After decades of hiding, controversy and evidence gathering, in 2011 the 91-year-old John Demjanjuk3 was found guilty of murder in his capacity of a guard at the Sobibor concentration camp.4 In 2004 Pope John Paul II apologized for the infamous activities of the Spanish inquisition.5

All of these events fall within the scope of the developing discipline of transitional justice, well-defined as the ‘full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempt to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation.’6 Transitional justice has grown to be associated with not only criminal proceedings, but also truth (and reconciliation) commissions, commemorations, relevant legislation, and museums and institutes dedicated to studying the past. The list of related measures that have been, are being, and can be implemented worldwide is long. This paper, however, will focus on one of the practices connected with the process of dealing with the past, namely official apology. The general term apology has come to describe ‘an acknowledgement of an offence and an expression of remorse’ (Lazare 2004). For the purpose of this paper we can define official apology as a public statement, made by an individual representing a state, which recognizes that harm was done to a certain group of persons in the past and expresses some degree of remorse in relation to that trauma. This definition fits into the concept Tavuchis describes as an ‘[a]pology from one collectivity to another, or Many to Many’ (Tavuchis 1991: 48).

As the examples above show, the victims’ (or their descendants’) demands for transitional justice and the mechanisms for dealing with the past can cross the boundaries of both space and time. Consequently, the world of official apologies – where they are asked for, offered, accepted or refused – is rich in recent and remote events, remorse and stubbornness, willingness to compromise and implacability. Through the years Pope John Paul II also apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s inaction during the Holocaust (1998)7 and for the sins committed in the name of the Catholic Church as a whole (2000) .8 In 1997 British Prime Minister Tony Blair blamed the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-19th century on ‘those who governed in London’ at the time.9 In 2005 at the Asia-Africa summit, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi expressed his country’s ‘deep remorse and heartfelt apology’ in relation to its ‘colonial aggression’10 during World War II.

Once given, however, apologies do not simply float in the atmosphere of international relations, but in fact usually cause an official response or more serious repercussions. For example, Koizumi’s apology was anything but warmly welcomed in China – the country that suffered the most under the blows of Japan’s Imperial Army. The reason was apparently the fact that the apologetic statement was accompanied by a visit by Japanese lawmakers to a controversial war shrine.11 United States President Barack Obama was strongly criticized by his Republican opponents for apologizing too much for past events in which the country participated directly or indirectly, and even for its actions in the present.12 In comparison, one of his predecessors – George Bush – is quoted as saying: ‘I will never apologize for the United States of America — I don’t care what the facts are.’13 Margot Honecker, the widow of Erich Honecker and still a resolute supporter of the former communist regime in East Germany, took a similar stance. Under communism she was minister of education from 1963 to 1989, but she feels no regret about the way the regime crushed all opposition and basic freedoms, even killing those who tried to escape its oppression.14

All these seemingly unrelated examples demonstrate the diversity of the international world of official apologies, and we can freely conclude that apologies and statements of recognition are never perceived as stand-alone acts. They are always scrutinized in relation to the historical episode they refer to, the events that accompany them, their exact wording, the social position of the person who makes them, and even his or her personal characteristics. The purpose of this paper is to discuss the importance of apologies as components of strategies of dealing with the past in postcommunist Central and Eastern Europe,15 as well as to analyse their effect on the general social climate in the country they originate from and the group they address.

I argue that apologies and statements of recognition are one of the most suitable practices of transitional justice with regard to countries from the this region for three reasons. First and foremost, these acts can symbolize the transition from the claustrophobic and suspicion-inducing environment of communist regimes to free societies committed to strengthening democratic values. Second, in these terms, apologies and the clarifications of historical events they often include are capable not only of providing the public with important details, but also of ‘cleansing’ society of feelings of collective guilt or shame. Third, the mechanism is especially relevant in the post-communist case because much of the wrongdoing addressed by the apologies took place in the distant past and most of the main actors have passed away, which rules out other transitional justice mechanisms like court trials and truth commissions.

At the same time, the paper will also point to two risks of apologizing and not apologizing. The first concerns the context and the content of such statements – as we saw with the Japanese prime minister’s apology, the combination of the right words with wrong deeds can justify the validity of the old saw about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. The second danger in this transitional justice mechanism is falling into the trap of endless apologizing – one party apologizes and then awaits an apology in return; the second party produces the expected response but then goes on to dredge up another casus, often prior. This vicious circle is often set in motion by the rhetoric of extreme nationalist parties or relations between countries (or groups) with long histories of conflict or tension.

The arguments bearing on the suitability of apology and statements of acknowledgement and the related risks will be backed by actual cases from the region of Central and Eastern Europe. The paper will analyse the specifics of each context, the content of each statement, and the reactions it produced on national and regional level. First of all however, I will begin with a theoretical discussion on the nature of apologizing, and its growing popularity as a tool of international relations and an element of transitional justice strategies.

The Return of Morality and the Advent of Reconciliation

The attention that official apology has attracted in recent years has led to the construction of a multilevel framework for the concept – a framework rich in modalities and meanings that raises numerous questions. The profusion of statements recognizing pain and suffering has prompted scholars to talk about ‘The Age of Apology’ (Gibney), the ‘Guilt of Nations’ (Barkan) and ‘Apology Mania’ (Taft).

In one of the most fundamental books on the topic of apology in general, Aaron Lazare refers to it as ‘one of the most profound human interactions,’ with the ‘power to heal humiliation and grudges, remove the desire for vengeance, and generate forgiveness on the part of the offended parties’ (Lazare 2004: 1). Discussing apology from a legal perspective, Lee Taft defines it as a ‘complicated and courageous act, one rich in moral meaning when the apology is authentically expressed’ (Taft 2000: 1138). The question of an apology’s authenticity is subject to deliberation when it comes both to the field of international relations and to the sphere of personal communication. Everyone, perhaps, has been involved at least once in a situation where a friend apologizes for betraying or wronging us and, although we are happy and eager to forgive, we suspect that the friend might not have been sincere and apologized only to bring things back to normal. However, Richard Joyce argues from a philosophical stance that insincerity does not change the fact that regret is expressed, ‘for an apology is an expression of regret’ (Joyce 2006: 53).

I believe that in the context of transitional justice, apology signifies an act of symbolic reparation directed towards the victims of a turbulent historical period. It can be established that statements of the acknowledgement of abuse or guilt and responsibility belong to the realm of restorative justice. Thus, apology entails a state-driven fulfilment of the right to reparation, which, as defined by the ‘Joinet/Orentlicher principles against impunity,’ combines ‘the right of individual victims or their beneficiaries to reparation’ and ‘the duty of the state to provide satisfaction.’ (Sisson 2010: 12).

But apart from these very well systematized definitions, political apologies for past injustices remain multifaceted and complex phenomena. An apology can address very recent or very distant events; it can be accompanied by material reparations and other symbolic acts (like commemorations) or not; it can be made by a (former) head of state or passed by parliament16; it can be addressed to different groups such as ethnic or religious minorities, political dissidents, and so on; and it can differ from other apologies in its wording – it can be more moderate or highly emotional and repentant. In any case, apology is becoming more and more popular as an act of political maturity, although it can never be proved that an apology is sincere and not made under pressure, or because something is expected in exchange (for example, another apology).

According to Elazar Barkan, the practice of reparations is an expression of the newly emerging tendency of states to indulge in self-reflection and compensate victims of suffering, even without being obliged to do so by the international community (Barkan 2000: xvii). Jeffrey K. Olick places apology and reparation among the practices of what he calls the ‘politics of regret’ – the ‘new principle of legitimation’ based on drawing conclusions and lessons from an awful past (Olick and Coughlin 2003: 38). In this sense, we can think of apology as a manifestation not only of the readiness to recognize the suffering of others (and potentially to make up for it), but also of society’s budding desire to reflect on its own actions, internal dynamics, and history in general. This does not mean that society should submerge itself in self-destructive feelings of collective guilt, but rather that it should seek to uncover and understand the reasons that brought about the specific historical injustices.

Many scholars and practitioners agree that the offering of an apology is an attempt to restore the moral balance that was abruptly upset by the violation of a significant norm of morality (Taft 2000: 1137). Continuing this line of thought, Tavuchis speaks of apologies as entailing ‘the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the violated rule’ (Tavuchis 1991: 3), and defines them as ‘strategic instances that illuminate complex social processes and the intricacies of moral commitments (Tavuchis 1991: 5). The importance of acknowledgement as a symbolic act is widely discussed by Trudy Govier, who quotes the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu describing the recognition of the existence of a violent act (and possibly one’s participation in it) as a way of restoring the identity and the dignity of the victim (Govier 2003: 66).

The relationship between the victim and the perpetrator, or more broadly speaking between the aggressive regime and the group it targeted, leads us to another notion that is often evoked and emphasized – reconciliation. A single, comprehensive definition of reconciliation still eludes the efforts of the academic community, which should come as no surprise given the differences of beliefs, cultures and traditions of communication that exist across societies. In the context of this paper and the historical period it refers to – the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe – I would like to think of reconciliation as being close to a ‘shared comprehensive vision’ and ‘harmony’ (Crocker 2003: 54). Both Govier and Crocker also connect reconciliation to democracy, a view I support and will further prove in this paper. According to them, the achievement of reconciliation may be considered as the opening of a long-closed door that leads to greater democratization (Prager 2003: 14).

With all this in mind, we can centre on a theoretical framework of apology and acknowledgement more narrowly reflecting the political and social realities of the countries discussed here. After the secretive, cruel and identity-destroying communist regimes released the societies from their tight grip, it became important to talk about the past and to break the silence that was so characteristic of these regimes. Therefore, it is important to have both an audience eager to hear an apology and an actor ready to deliver it – both of these are signs of political and social maturity. In this sense, the term reconciliation may mean reconciliation of the oppressed society with its own past of oppression – the recognition of the crimes of this past and the acceptance of their implications for the present. Apology is one of the tools of such reconciliation.

Acknowledgement – Better Late than Never

Having touched upon the theoretical framework of apology as a transitional justice mechanism, I will now turn to a concrete recent example of symbolic reparation – the declaration adopted by the Bulgarian Parliament on 11 January 2012 condemning the forced assimilation policies of the communist regime directed against the Bulgarian Muslims.17 The document was proposed by the right-wing party Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria and was backed by 112 of the 115 MPs present.18 The assimilation policies, still best known under the cynical name ‘Revival Process,’ aimed at stripping the Muslim communities in the country of their ethnic and/or religious identity by means of massive and often humiliating practices such as the changing of names and bans on the use of the Turkish language or the wearing of particular clothing. People who dared to defend their way of life, traditions and beliefs were persecuted, beaten, imprisoned, and even killed. Unfortunately, many Bulgarian Turks were also forced to leave the country and settle in Turkey, where they decided to remain after the fall of communism. Even more unfortunate is the fact that the legal proceedings against the individuals responsible for the forced assimilation were never concluded – an extensive topic that should be discussed separately. My intention here is to focus on two aspects of the passage of the declaration, which I consider relevant in view of my previous reflections on apology. These are its content and its timing.

First of all, the declaration does not contain the words apology, apologize, Regret or remorse. In that sense it cannot be viewed as a full apology, because it does not address the community that was subject to forced assimilation in the first place. However, this should not be considered as diminishing the significance of the document for one main reason – the lack of a direct apology would matter only if the declaration had been issued by the regime (or a reformed version of it) that committed the crime. An apology delivered by a rightist coalition would be superficial, to say the least. Besides that, it might generate a feeling of collective guilt, which is detrimental in terms of historical accuracy and the wider public understanding of the events. The declaration sends a strong message, absolutely denouncing the totalitarian regime’s policies, by describing them as ethnic cleansing.19 Although international law does not provide a definition of this term, the practices employed in the process of ethnic cleansing fall within the scope of crimes against humanity, war crimes and sometimes even genocide (Lieberman 2010: 46). The declaration, therefore, should not be undervalued. It recognizes, after all, the fact that a very grave crime was committed against the Bulgarian Muslims. Another powerful point made by the document is the stress placed on the importance of judicial action – the need to reach verdicts in the cases against those who conceived the plan for forced assimilation. The implication is clear – many symbolic acts will have even greater significance when accompanied by or leading to practical measures and actions.

The timing of the declaration should be discussed in view of the two main ‘accusations’ that found their way into the public discourse in Bulgaria. The first criticism was from those who thought that the document came too late. Others decided to link, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, the adoption of the declaration with the parliament’s rejection of a document20 recognizing the Armenian genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I. When it comes to this second issue, it must be stressed that placing such comparisons for consideration on the social agenda is nothing but wrong. The two historical events and any transitional justice mechanisms associated with them should be analysed separately and any discussion of the two side-by-side should be backed by serious academic evidence and argumentation. As to the criticism that the declaration is belated, it must be admitted that many official statements of remorse and condemnation came decades and even centuries after the wrongs were committed. We have to bear in mind that the adoption of a declaration recognizing a crime against humanity is a serious political act, requiring strong political will. The fact that such political will was lacking in Bulgaria for 22 years is sad and discouraging but, again, this should not minimize the importance of the document.

There are two issues related to the history of the ‘Revival Process’ that should be mentioned because of their implications for the present. First, the forced assimilation campaign contributed to mobilization on both sides (Bulgarian and Turkish) and to the rise of nationalistic moods during the transition to democracy and even nowadays (Gruev and Kalionski 2008: 158), when the transition to democracy is supposedly complete. Second, it is important to investigate whether the Turkish community, and Bulgarian society as a whole, has overcome and come to terms with the trauma, and to what extent (Gruev and Kalionski 2008: 195). Such an investigation necessarily involves the application of other transitional justice mechanisms. Perhaps the next step of the process of dealing with the past would be to incorporate the memory of this episode into the commemorative culture in the country and the grand narrative about the communist period in Bulgaria.

The Arab-Turkish names of the Bulgarian Muslims were restored at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of 1990s; some of the people who had been forced out returned to the country, but the mosaic of interethnic relations had been significantly altered. As I mentioned before, if there had been a full-fledged official apology to the Bulgarian Muslims, it should have come from the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP), which is accepted as the successor of the Bulgarian Communist Party. In March 1991, the BSP’s Central Council adopted a declaration that ‘admitted the political culpability of the party for the repression, but rejected the possibility that this political culpability should be transformed into a judicial one’ (Montero 2010: 142). The persecution and the wrongdoing by the regime were blamed solely on Todor Zhivkov and his closest comrades, who were expelled from the party. The continuing omnipresence of the communist apparatus in the political and social environment made it impossible to produce a meaningful apology or any transitional justice measure whatsoever. The next chapter will look at two other former communist countries and the implications of apologies there.

Apology – from Warsaw to Moscow and Back

In 1993 Aleksander Kwasniewski, at that time President of Poland and leader of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), apologized in parliament ‘to all those who experienced injustice and wrongdoing by the [communist] authorities and the system before 1989’ (Montero 2010: 146). Although his words represented a definite condemnation of the regime and included a direct apology, his subsequent actions were more of a disappointment for the pro-lustration camp (Stan 2006: 16). Furthermore, as Lavinia Stan – a noted analyst of transitional justice processes in post-communist Europe – suggests, the effort by Kwasniewski and former communists to come to terms with the past should be attributed not so much to their desire to establish the truth about violations of human rights under communism, as to their wish to ‘control the damage done by the collapse of the Oleksy government’ (Stan 2006: 50). This can serve as another exemplary case of a good start not followed by any major developments, as a result of either insufficient political will or the possibility that the initial step was driven by completely different motives.

We can describe as significant the role in transitional justice processes in Poland of Wojciech Jaruzelski, who has been in the spotlight many times over the last two decades because of his apologies and, of course, the trial against him. The trial dealt with the contentious period of martial law in Poland, and at the beginning of 2012 the court ruled that the proclamation of martial law was, indeed, a communist crime. Unfortunately, Jaruzelski, the man at the top of the pyramid of generals responsible for martial law, was declared medically unfit for court proceedings in 2011.21 Jaruzelski may not have been tried, but he has surely done his share of apologizing and assuming responsibility in the public space. In 2005 he referred to the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia as a ‘stupid political act’ and expressed his regret for the decision to join it.22 In fact, this was not the first time the general apologized for this particular episode – he expressed his remorse as early as 1990. Only recently, at the end of 2011, did Jaruzelski also apologize for the imposition of martial law with the words ‘I am sorry to everyone who met with some form of injustice or harm. I say this once again.’23

Despite his explicit expressions of regret, which come much closer to an actual apology than the statements in the Bulgarian case, Jaruzelski, as many analysts have observed, remains a controversial figure. For example, he still defends the stance that martial law was the ‘lesser evil’ that prevented a Soviet invasion that would have claimed more lives and arrests. His arguments however, are not accepted by some Polish politicians and Solidarity veterans.24 Furthermore, with similarities to the case of the heated debate between Japan and China presented in the introduction, only three months prior to the apology for participation in the crushing of the Prague Spring Jaruzelski received from Vladimir Putin a medal honouring his contribution to the fight against Nazism. Naturally, this act created an outcry in both Poland and the Czech Republic, although it was, again, only a symbolic gesture.

All this goes to prove that irrespective of the motives behind General Jaruzelski’s apologies – which in all probability no one will ever know with certainty – his words were fuel for the debate on the nature of the Polish communist regime and the complex web of relations among the Sovietbloc countries and between them and the USSR. On a more psychological and emotional level, these events also raise questions: Is it possible to realize the wrongfulness of one’s actions and seek absolution? Is it possible to forgive and turn the page? It is doubtful that questions like these have only a single answer. They require an interdisciplinary approach – the input of political science, history, psychology, and anthropology, because societies remember, forgive and forget differently. As we have seen, the involvement of another ethnic group or even another country only makes the situation even more complicated.

Because of the way the USSR once influenced the paths of the Eastern bloc countries and its own constituent republics, Russia today plays a central part in the theatre of international apologies, or such, at least, is the role assigned to it by others. Indeed, Russia has been asked to apologize numerous times. A good occasion for renewed demands for apology was the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, celebrated in 2005. The presidents of Estonia and Lithuania boycotted the event, thus supporting the opinion that the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany was merely the beginning of the occupation of their countries. The Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga attended the Moscow ceremony but only to ask Russia’s highest authorities once more to condemn the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.25

A similar demand for recognition of the nature of the USSR’s presence in the Baltic States was made at a high European level by the European Commission Vice President Guenter Verheugen.26

But there is another problem: when the Russian political elite, usually represented by Vladimir Putin, tries to produce a statement even vaguely reminiscent of apology, it almost always leads to an escalation, and not a diminution of tensions and accusations of negationism. In the wake of the solemn remembrance of the beginning of WWII, Putin – then prime minister – ostensibly apologized for the Soviet alliance with Nazi Germany and admitted that Stalin had ordered the Katyn massacre. However, as many commentators argued, his address brought anything but reconciliation and gratitude, because in the immediate context of his statement Putin referred to other events, as if to explain and justify the actions of the Soviet Union. For example, although the Russian prime minister condemned the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (as he has been asked to do), he did not hesitate to add that Britain and France had also signed agreements with Hitler one year earlier, thus leaving little choice for the USSR.27 Putin also compared the Katyn massacre to the treatment of Soviet POWs by Poland in the 1920s.28The heated debates on the past are full of attempts to equate one case of suffering to another; this tendency to juxtapose violent historical episodes and compare the number of victims is what Robert Hayden called the ‘recounting of the dead’ in relation to the wars in former Yugoslavia (Hayden 1999: 167). Although such discussions create sensation, media frenzy and outbursts of radical nationalism, they have already proven to be extremely unproductive and detrimental to social dialogue, truth-seeking and reconciliation.


It is all relative with an apology – it can be healing and bring relief, but it can be also elusive and misleading, sometimes even for those who have to deliver it. ‘[Therefore,] I would like to apologize for all the mistakes I made towards my nation and people. I know that indeed I was wrong. There is nothing that can change that and I honestly would like to express my apology to my people.’29These words belong to Kaing Guek Eav-Duch, who commanded the notorious S-21 camp during the Khmer Rouge regime. But after dozens of declarations like the ones mentioned above, the prison commander asked for a full acquittal saying that he was only following orders. As we saw at the beginning of this paper, his appeal was denied. Of course, especially after the latter action, nobody can be sure if Duch’s behavior was driven by genuine remorse. But still, the document containing his apologies was uploaded on the website of the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the whole world to see – and especially for those who survived the torture and the descendants of those who did not. Thus, the personal motives of the perpetrators for making an apology remain in the background; of primary importance is the impact of a concrete statement on those affected by past violence.

To return to the communism of Central and East Europe, it should be reiterated as a conclusion that apology, or a more comprehensive acknowledgement of crimes and assumption of responsibility, has the potential to be a successful transitional justice mechanism. This is especially valid in relation to the regimes in Bulgaria and Romania which had very deep roots, and where currently there is almost no possibility of the criminal prosecution of the main perpetrators (usually because they have passed away). But in this case apology is a big step toward coming to terms with the past for another, very important reason, namely the restoration of identity it can offer. In relation to the Bulgarian Muslims we are talking about a literal reconstruction of the missing pieces of ethnic and religious identity deconstructed during the ‘Revival Process.’ More broadly speaking, despite their differences, all communist regimes after 1945 aimed at blurring identities and turning individuals into the perfect subjects of the new socialist order. It was in their nature never to explain, never to apologize – just like Mrs. Honecker. Therefore, an apology or at least the recognition of crimes will surely make a difference, by restoring the dignity of political prisoners and dissidents as well as, probably, exposing some who still benefit from the positions they once occupied and, it is to be hoped, by making those who ‘just lived through’ the regime reflect upon it.

Of course, apologizing cannot be the sole means of achieving all this, but it is a suitable means of paving the way for more practical steps. When delivered in the right way, it is a noteworthy symbolic act to accompany less ‘exciting’ undertakings that attract less public attention. There are also increasing efforts on the regional and European level to condemn more definitively the crimes of totalitarianism. Besides this immediate outcome, it is also expected that any events and initiatives in that direction will become a forum for sharing experience, ideas, and best practices. The preamble of the 2008 Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, signed by prominent European intellectuals, states that ‘many Communist parties have not apologized for Communist crimes’30 and calls for several measures that would intensify debate on the issue and increase public awareness. The Vilnius Declaration adopted in the framework of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in 2009 reiterated the condemnation of the crimes of totalitarian regimes and the proclamation of the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism, designated as such by the European Parliament in 2009. In 2010 the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania urged the European Union to ‘consider a law against denying or trivializing the crimes of totalitarian regimes.’31 And again on a European level, the educational project Platform of European Memory and Conscience was founded in Prague in 2011. It ‘brings together institutions and organizations from the V4 and other EU countries active in research, documentation, awareness-raising and education about the totalitarian regimes which befell the Visegrad region in the 20th century.’32

Initiatives on the highest national and international level attract public and media attention but also add fuel to long-existing controversies – for example, the issue of ‘equating’ the crimes of Nazism to those of communism. Since the purpose of this paper is different, it will suffice to say that declarations, resolutions, projects, programs, and so on like those described above generally increase the political and social interest in transitional justice. Improved public awareness about the times of communism and a greater wish to come to terms with the legacy of the past will only benefit the democratic path these societies chose to take more than twenty years ago. It is all relative when it comes down to apologizing, for the acts that accompany it sometimes downgrade the intentions of the one who apologizes. At the same time, the fact that apologies are surrounded by so much caution and diplomatic fuss means that they are not just empty words but do actually carry some weight. No matter how difficult it is to determine the genuineness of the motives behind an apology, acknowledgement is still preferred to silence.


Gergana Tzetkova. Graduated from the European Regional Master’s Degree in Democracy and Human Rights in South-East Europe at the University of Sarajevo and the University of Bologna. Her thesis focused on the application of transitional justice measures in the Republic of Croatia (G. Tzvetkova, ‘Never Again? History of Transitional Justice in Croatia’, in Master Theses Selected for Publishing, Academic Year 2010-2011, published in 2011). Currently she is preparing PhD proposal with the aim of continuing research on the topic of dealing with the past, but with focus on her home country Bulgaria.



1 Press Release 14.03.2012, ICC First verdict: Thomas Lubanga guilty of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate in hostilities. ICC.

2 A hybrid court, officially known as the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, trying key officials of the Khmer Rouge regime.

3 John Demjanjuk died on March 17, 2012 when this paper was in preparation. Although at the time of his death, his verdict was still under appeal, it created a precedent and prepared the ground for many new investigations of former Nazi camp guards. D. Rising ‘John Demjanjuk, convicted death camp guard, dies’, The Guardian (2012).

4 J. Ewing and A. Cowell, ‘Demjanjuk Convicted for Role in Nazi Death Camp’, New York Times (2011).

5 Political Apologies and Reparations.

6 Part of the definition of ‘transitional justice’ provided by Kofi Annan in the Report of the Secretary-General to the United Nations Security Council, The rule of law and transitional justice in conflict and post-conflict societies.

7 World Europe, ‘Vatican apologises over Holocaust’, BBC News (1998)

8 Political Apologies and Reparations.

9 K. Marks, ‘Blair issues apology for Irish Potato Famine’, The Independent (1997)

10 BBC Monitoring, ‘Excerpts from Japan PM’s apology’, BBC News (2005)

11 AP, ‘China dismisses Japanese apology for war aggression’, USA TODAY (2005)

12 G. Kessler, 2011, ‘Obama’s “Apology Tour”’, The Washington Post (2011).

13 National Cold War Exhibition, viewed 30 March 2012.

14 Europe Online Magazine, ‘Honecker’s Heritage’ (2012).

15 For the purposes of this paper and considering its focus on transitional justice in relation to communist regimes, the region of Central and Eastern Europe here includes the countries that founded the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance: Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic and Slovakia), Hungary, Poland, Romania and the former USSR.

16 In general, there is no written rule as to which state representative should deliver an apology. As an example of this, I would refer to a case from 2010 when the Croatian President Ivo Josipović apologized to the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the indiscriminate violence of the Croatian police in the beginning of the 1990s. After that, the Prime Minister of Croatia at that time, Jadranka Kosor, expressed regret that her opinion was not sought on this matter. ‘Josipovic apologizes for Croatia’s role in war in Bosnia’, Croatian Times (2011).

17 The process continued through the 1970s and 1980s and affected, in a different way, the ‘the most significant Muslim communities – the Turks and the Pomaks/Muslim Bulgarians.’ (Gruev and Kalionski 2008: 209).

18 S. Dimitrova, ‘Bulgaria apologises to its Turks for “Revival Process”’, SETimes (2012).

19 A free translation of the Declaration can be found on the website of Reconciliation of European Histories. The text of the Declaration in Bulgarian can be found on Демократи за силна Българи.

20 The draft was proposed by the ultranationalist party Ataka.

21 Polska The Times, ‘Martial law generals found guilty, but too late’, PressEurop (2012).

22 BBC News, ‘Jaruzelski says sorry for 1968’, BBC News (2005).

23 Polskie Radio, ‘Mixed Reactions to Jaruzelski martial law apology’, (2011) .

24 Polskie Radio, ‘Mixed Reactions to Jaruzelski martial law apology’, (2011).

25 БТВ, ‘Москва отбеляза 60 години от победата над нацистка Германия с грандиозен парад’ (2005).

26 A. Lobjakas, ‘Russia/EU: Demands Grow For Moscow To Apologize To Baltic States For Soviet Past’, Radio Free Europe (2005).

27 Mail Foreign Service, ‘Putin blames Britain for Russia’s invasion of Poland on the 70th anniversary of WWII’, mail online (2009)

28 A. Prazmowska, ‘Putin’s letter to the Poles’, The Guardian (2009).

29 Compilation of statements of apology made by Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch during the proceedings.

30 Press Release, Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism - Press Release, Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (2008).

31 EUobserver, ‘Six States Urge EU Ban on Denial of Communist Crimes’ (2012).

32 Platform of European Memory and Conscience.


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