by Monika Nalepa. Cambridge, UK and New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. 324pp. Cloth $83.99/£50.00. ISBN: 9780521514453. Paperback $25.99/£16.99. ISBN: 9780521735506. eBook format. $21.00. ISBN: 9780511685774.

Reviewed by James Richter, Department of Politics, Bates College. Email: jrichter [at]


At one point or another, most new democracies must decide what to do with people who participated in the repressions of the old regime. In the former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, transitional justice usually took the form of lustration. Lustration consists of publicizing the names of people who had collaborated with the communist regime in the past, and preventing them from taking certain official positions in the new social order. By 2000, most countries in Eastern and Central Europe had some form of lustration law on the books. These laws were passed at different times during the 1990s and varied considerably with regard to the targets of lustration and the severity of sanctions. Czechoslovakia passed a relatively harsh lustration law as early as 1991 (a year prior to separating into the Czech Republic and Slovakia). The parliaments in Hungary and Poland, by contrast, passed lustration laws only several years later.

Most of the literature on transitional justice focuses on the normative issues: Who should be punished and how much? What can one forgive and what can one not? How does one balance the search for justice with the potentially competing values of reconciliation? What implications do these choices have for social unity, legitimacy and stability under the new regime? SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET, by Monika Nalepa, takes a different approach. She avoids the normative questions almost entirely, and focuses instead on explaining the variation in when the laws were passed, who passed them, and with what severity.

Three sets of puzzles in particular concern the author. First, why did communist elites peacefully cede power in 1989 knowing that they might face harsh retribution at the hands of the new government? Even if the opposition offered them assurances on this point during roundtable negotiations in 1989, how could the communist elites be sure the new leaders would not renege on their promise? For that matter, why did many opposition leaders refrain from such retribution, even though it probably would have played politically fairly well immediately after the regime’s fall? Second, having abstained from lustration in the early 1990s, why did some parliaments pursue such legislation at a later date, when most of the electorate had turned their attention to economic issues? Finally, and most puzzling, why did some of this legislation originate from parties consisting of old communist elites, who presumably had the most to lose from lustration? [*525]

To answer these questions, Nalepa formulates a series of hypotheses based on rational choice models. These models present the politics of lustration laws as a strategic game among competitive elites, in which different parties maneuver for legislation that will most discredit their opponents and shield themselves. The crucial model is a game she calls “skeletons in the closet.” In this game, the outgoing communists indicate they have information about collaborators within the opposition that they will divulge if promises of leniency are not kept. Those opposition parties that are more likely to have a substantial number of collaborators, therefore, would be less likely to pursue lustration than were opposition parties who had little to worry about. Nalepa then shows that the potential for collaborators both among the Polish Solidarity Movement and the leading parties of the Hungarian opposition was quite high, whereas the potential for collaborators within the much smaller, more besieged opposition in Czechoslovakia was much smaller. The revelations that Lech Walesa himself had acted as an informer in the early 1970s only strengthens Nalepa’s case. These revelations occurred after Nalepa had done all of her research, but before the book was published, so she includes it in the book’s epilogue.

If the new elites restrained themselves in the early 1990s, why did parliamentary majorities pass lustration laws later in the decade? Nalepa demonstrates quite convincingly that popular pressure had little to do with it, since most voters were far more concerned with economic issues than transitional justice. Rather, she argues that, in many cases, the parties that introduced these laws had little to fear from such exposure: either their leaders were too young to have collaborated with the regime in the 1970s or 1980s, or they came from opposition parties that took a much less compromising position towards the communist regime and therefore had to monitor their ranks for potential collaborators much more carefully. With no skeletons in their closet, these parties could use lustration to discredit not only their opponents among former communists, but among the liberal oppositionists as well.

Still, how does one explain those cases when lustration laws were introduced and enacted by former communists themselves? Nalepa shows that such parties introduced lustration laws just prior to elections which the former communists expected to lose. By passing a moderate lustration law themselves, Nalepa argues, they hoped to mollify the moderates and prevent the passage of a more severe lustration law under a new parliament.

In general, Nalepa’s argument is quite persuasive. She derives her hypotheses using complex mathematical models, but in fact the logic is so clear and compelling that the models seem hardly necessary. She then submits these hypotheses to rigorous tests using an impressive amount of data from surveys, elite interviews and existing secondary accounts. Finally, though most of her data comes from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, she concludes with brief case studies from Latin America that suggest her models have implications well beyond the politics of post-communism.

If Nalepa demonstrates her mastery of political science methods, however, her [*526] use of rational choice theory leaves nagging questions. On the one hand, stripping the normative issues from debates on lustration does help clarify certain issues. It warns us to look askance at high-minded rhetoric and reminds us of the importance of short-term political interests. On the other hand, focusing on inter-elite competition as a self-contained political game may ignore or underemphasize significant factors outside the game theoretical model. For example, Nalepa contends that the communists were willing to cede power in the 1989 Roundtable negotiations because the “skeletons” assured them they would not suffer too much. Without such a credible commitment, she seems to imply, the old regime would have an incentive to resist the opposition with more drastic instruments. The “skeletons” may indeed have weighed in their calculations, but surely the knowledge that they would not get help from Gorbachev was at least as important. Strangely, Gorbachev does not even merit an entrance in the index.

More important, emphasizing the self-interested choices of atomistic individuals leaves one blind to the social relations and normative understandings that help define self-interest. The argument that the elites acted chiefly out of short term political calculations is something that should be demonstrated rather than assumed. For example, Nalepa points out that the leaders of the Polish opposition after the introduction of martial law decided to pursue a strategy of openness rather than conspiracy, even though this made them vulnerable to infiltration by informers. By contrast, members of parties introducing lustration laws later in Poland adopted a more conspiratorial approach to pursue a more confrontational strategy. It is nearly impossible to tell, then, if the differing attitudes these parties took towards lustration reflected their vulnerability to threats of exposure, as Nalepa suggests, or rather a more fundamental, dispositional difference in their willingness to tolerate complexity and ambiguity within their ranks. Perhaps Walesa was willing to forgive collaborators not only because he feared exposure, but also because he understood how even ardent oppositionists could fall victim to regime pressures.

Despite these questions provoked by Nalepa’s method and her resulting analysis, the book provides important insights into the comparative politics of transitional justice. While scholars should not ignore politicians’ rhetoric of justice and reconciliation, they should also never overlook the ways in which such rhetoric plays into the more immediate, parochial interests in the political competition.

© Copyright 2010 by the author, James Richter.