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International Conference on Secret Police Files Belgrade

Hotel Intercontinental, February 21-23, 2002
Organisers: Centre for Anti-War Action and RTV B92
Conference sponsored by: Fund for an Open Society and German Government

In the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, as in the former Yugoslavia, there has been for decades an opinion, a belief even, that any citizens publicly declaring themselves opposed to the regime or fighting for the establishment of democracy, represent a threat to the regime and should be brought into line or, at the very least, be closely watched.

Like all the formerly Communist states of Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia had various security services which exist to this very day at both the federal and republic levels, with few or no changes. For decades these services collected and stored information on the political opponents of the authorities and on all citizens who supported the democratisation of the society.

The current legislation has no provision even for general issues such as the operation, procedures and jurisdiction of the various state security services. There is thus no legislation covering the specific issue of maintaining files on citizens. These and similar issues are probably covered by internal regulations within these services, to which the public has no access. It is, therefore, necessary to change inappropriate regulations and the practices based on them which, which have been implemented here for decades, and regulate these issues by legislation.

The Decree of May 22, 2001, on removing the top secret classification of files on Serbian citizens was a not very successful attempt in this directions. This decree was changed even before it came into effect on May 31, 2001. This sub-legal instrument has various deficiencies, however it does represent certain progress in allowing citizens to read files kept on them by the State Security Service of the Serbian police under the category "internal enemy". Citizens still have no knowledge of whether the State Security service has other files on them, classified under a different name, or whether some other security or intelligence service has raised files, or whether their names are mentioned in files on other people, or files kept under collective titles (political parties, non-government organisations, companies etc.) or certain events (demonstrations and rallies). It is therefore important to disclose the contents of these files to citizens under certain conditions.

If this is not done, the highly non-democratic legacy of spying on the state's own citizens will hinder the further democratisation of society, while at the same time violating the right of citizens to privacy. This in turn represents a threat to other human rights and freedoms.

In any case, the entire problem should be addressed and argued openly, which is not and could not be a criminal act, as the Serbian police occasionally, and without justification, remind us.

The Centre for Anti-War Action began a project for he opening of the secret files in early 2001.

The February, 2002, conference presented model legislation for opening the secret files. (The basic principles adopted by the expert group drafting the bill are: citizens should be permitted to see not only personal files kept on them by the State Security Service of the Serbia police, but also files kept by military intelligence and other security services; citizens would be permitted to see sections of files on other individuals and organisations or particular events in which they are mentioned; the issue of lustration should be adequately regulated, as should the issue of disposing of the files kept to date, i.e. they ways in which they should be secured, both physically and for protection against abuse, archiving them and so on. All these issues must regulated within contemporary and accepted democratic solutions, respect for human rights and freedom, the public nature of the work of state bodies and so on.)

Given the complexity of the overall problem, participants in this international conference consisted of the appropriate state bodies, both internal and foreign affairs departments, together with the justice department and the army. Other participants included media and NGO representatives dealing with the issue, experts, lawyers and citizens on whom files have been kept.

In particular, the conference dealt with issues and problems encountered by certain countries in drafting and implementing legislation, as well as their practical experience and advice which could be useful for Yugoslavia which has only recently begun the transition process, ten years later than most of the region.

Conference opening remarks by Veran Matic

Why is the opening of files not a topic of interest for citizens of this country? Is it because we are concerned about much more serious matters? Or is it because the citizens do not believe that the real truth about them or "the others" will ever be revealed. Perhaps also because of the fear of revelations about the broad and branching network of paid informants, voluntary spies and self-appointed patriots. But haven't other Eastern European societies going through transition faced similar problems and dilemmas? Was this problem less important to the impoverished and starving Polish people? Can the ills of economic reform overshadow and push aside this normal, all too human curiosity about what was happening in the recent past? Especially when it comes to a society such as ours, burdened, often obsessively, with its own past.

When the Berlin Wall fell and Germany united, a large number of Eastern Germans were all too aware that the opening of secret police files would reveal spying to be more a life style than a vocation. Resistance to the opening of the files was, nevertheless, marginal.

Why is our situation so different to that in other post-Communist societies? Probably because there is neither political will nor public willingness to face it, as though the predominant impression is that the country is still at some kind of war with itself and the rest of the world, and that every serious attempt to confront the work of the secret police over the past fifty years is dangerous for the survival of the country. This internal war, it seems, is not yet over. It is also, without a doubt, a consequence of the differences and rivalry among the main political factions of the DOS coalition. Control of the files could be of value in future political showdowns. This seems to me to be the main reason we have still not faced this problem in a proper way.

Veran Matic
Editor in chief, Radio Television B92


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