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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Public Leadership and Management

Purifying Transitional Governments of Authoritarian Bureaucracies: Lessons from Eastern Europe for the Arab World

The follow article is a review of the book, Lustration and Transitional Justice: Personnel Systems in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, by Roman David (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), pp.312, $62.96  

Dealing with Authoritarian Bureaucracies During Transitions

A German proverb reads, “Government passes, bureaucracy remains”[i]. If this is indeed true, how do post-authoritarian or post-conflict regimes deal with personnel systems? This question has resonance from Prague to Baghdad to Cairo and in all countries that were once bastions of authoritarian or ideological regimes. Roman David’s ambitious study, Lustration and Transitional Justice, provides insight into the emergence and effects of lustration systems and offers relevant policies on how to deal with inherited authoritarian personnel systems in transitioning countries.

Lustration can be defined as the systematic process of vetting and removing  public officials affiliated with repressive regimes to “purify” institutions and society during transition. While previous research[ii] such as  defines lustration as “the systematic vetting of public officials for links to the communist-era security services”[iii], David contends that lustration has a dual nature. In other words, lustration not only has clear “administrative and security objectives”  but also purifies a society through “ritual cleansing”[iv] . David builds his lustration theory on the post-communist and Eastern European nations of Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

David’s study of personnel systems in Eastern Europe cogently explains how post-communist nations addressed their past and explores these countries divergent approaches in dealing with their inherited bureaucracies. Critically evaluating the existing transitional justice literature, he departs from rationalist and human rights based theories of lustration. Rationalist scholarship[v]  explained this phenomenon by examining political bargaining between former regime officials and new ruling elites. Meanwhile human rights based research[vi]  argues ritual cleansing of government bureaucracies causes human rights violations and reproduces the undemocratic practices of ousted regimes.

David organizes his book around the concept of perception, demonstrating the divergent ways that citizens and new ruling elites perceive former regime institutions and tainted personnel. The content and rigidity of such perceptions in turn affect which lustration measure will be used. Putting perception to the center of his analysis, David then uses the origins, implementation and effects of lustration as his major variables to provide a detailed explanation of the transformation of different personnel systems in Eastern and Central Europe.

Day of Commitment Ceremony

Comparing Approaches to Lustration

David identifies and evaluates three types of reformed personnel systems: exclusive, inclusive and reconciliatory. The exclusive system prevents persons associated with previous regimes from holding certain public offices, as in the case of the Czech Republic. Although rapid and seemingly less costly, in fact, exclusive systems might weaken state capacity, last longer than expected and foment social and political unrest due to revenge politics and ideological discussions. The de-Ba’athification of Iraq is a case in point. The Coalition Provisional Authority disbanded the Iraqi military and dismissed more than 200,000 people that eradicated the Iraqi state’s capacity and kindled sectarian tension in post-2003 Iraq.

Inclusive systems are based on exposure, by publically disclosing officials’ names and the nature of their collaboration with the former regime. However, as exemplified in the case of Hungary, inclusive systems might have destabilizing effects since they allow former regime collaborators, including leading politicians in the post-communist era, to redefine their roles in the communist Hungary and portray themselves as victims. Thus, when inclusive systems are implemented it is difficult to speak of social purification and trust-building in state institutions.

Finally, reconciliatory systems are based on confession of past wrongdoing, and as the case of Poland demonstrates, these systems fail to transform perceptions. This is so because confessions and political accommodation of the former communists under the banner of leftists created two camps: leftists who opposed lustration using pragmatist arguments, and right wing supporters who argued that democratic transformation was impeded by leftists. Thus, the lustration debate became a political struggle and a tool of political  legitimacy. Although there was no radical separation between the former and current regimes  at the institutional and ideological levels, this system allowed people to redefine and choose their own recollections of past.

David concludes that the reconciliatory system is the only personnel system that can lead to true social reconciliation,[vii] but finds that exclusive systems are more likely to generate trust in transition governments and transform political systems. This is because exclusive systems establish clear discontinuity with the former regime and maintain a rigid perception about the past, whereas reconciliatory systems does not  and allow competing narratives of the past.

David’s study is innovative in its examination of political effects of efforts to cleanse government bureaucracies. Using well-designed vignettes, David was able to measure people’s divergent reactions to different personnel systems that allowed nuanced analysis.

Despite the fact that lustration is neither inherently secretive nor necessarily based on collective guilt and vengeance, David finds that lustration might be a poor mechanism to deal with inherited personnel regimes. Regardless of its type, lustration requires clear and fair screening, and vetting and due process criteria to protect fundamental human rights. The problem, however, is whether transitioning states have the capacity and resources to do so since such countries have weak institutions and rely on personnel who are affiliated with the former regime. Thus, human rights violations and political mayhem might occur at varying degrees depending on country-specific factors if fair and clear screening and due process criteria are not implemented.

Lustration Can Exacerbate Identity Politics

David’s remarkable study deserves a wider attention both from academics and public policy makers. This book encourages students of political science to use new approaches such as vignettes in studying lustration rather than relying on population surveys that do not allow for making nuanced arguments. However, a shortcoming of this book should be highlighted and might be an important research topic for students of political science and, in particular, Middle East politics.

What happens when lustration intertwines with identity politics? Although David alludes to the secession of Slovakia from the Czech-Slovak Federation, he does not elaborate on the links between lustration, ethnic identity, and secessionist movements. After the communist regime fell, the Slovak leader Meciar opposed to lustration policies and used it as an excuse along with salient ethnic grievances for secession. The relationship between lustration, ethnoreligious identity, and secession is also relevant to students of Middle East politics. Recall the de-Ba’athification of Iraq that was perceived as de-Sunnification by Sunnis since they constituted a majority in the Party and state apparatus. The massive purges of Sunnis and exclusionary nature of the still operational de-Ba’athification program has become a major source of resentment for Sunnis. Thus, it is no coincidence that many Sunnis explicitly articulate a discourse of disintegration.

Students of Arab politics and policy makers should consider the arguments of this book seriously. Although transitional justice has not been a notable subject of discussion in Arab countries, they might strongly benefit from lessons of lustration in Eastern Europe.


Take the example of Libya’s isolation law that aims to purge those who collaborated with the Qaddafi regime and committed gross human rights violations. Although it is necessary to bring justice for the victims of Qaddafi’s repression, the law violates fundamental human rights since it is exclusionary and expansive. Most profoundly, given the Libyan state’s weak capacity and conflicts between various tribes, lustration might eradicate state capacity by removing skilled human force and exacerbate sectarian conflict by fomenting tension. Perhaps the Libyan government should narrow down the scope of the law, establish fair and clear screening, vetting, and due process criteria, and be transparent to avoid the destructive consequences seen in Iraq with de-Ba’athification. In countries such as Egypt, the notorious security sector, specifically the police, might be a good target for lustration but policymakers should remember that lustration is not only a process of administrative justice but also a means of “social purification.”

Overall, this remarkable book’s arguments travel across regions and should encourage readers to use more innovative approaches to the study bureaucratic pasts and think critically about the consequences of policies that purge personnel under authoritarian regimes from new government bureaucracies.


[i] David, Roman. Lustration and Transitional Justice: Personnel Systems in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

[ii] Williams, Kieran, Brigid Fowler , and Aleks Szczerbiak. 2005. “Explaining lustration in Central Europe: a ‘post-communist politics’ approach.” Democratization no. 12 (1):22-43.

[iii] David, Roman. at p. 23.

[iv] Id at p. 55 and 226.

[v]  Huntington, S. 1991. The third wave : democratization in the late twentieth century, The Julian J Rothbaum distinguished lecture series. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Kritz, N. 1995. Transitional justice : how emerging democracies reckon with former regimes. Vol. 1. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press

[vi] Rosenberg, T. 1995. The haunted land : facing Europe’s ghosts after communism. 1st ed. New York: Random House.

[vii] David, Roman p. 229.