- Associated Press - Friday, March 4, 2011

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — People spied on by Hungary’s communist-era secret police will have the right to destroy their surveillance reports under a government proposal historians say would damage the country’s ability to acknowledge its past.

The regime’s network of informants once kept as many as 1.6 million people under close scrutiny, with relatives and neighbors informing on each other and the secret services compiling over 12 miles worth of files.

The government says it is drafting legislation giving those spied upon the right to decide whether to save the original documents, keep them for their grandchildren or even destroy them.

“A state ruled by law cannot keep personal information collected through unconstitutional means, as these are immoral documents of an immoral regime,” the justice ministry said.

The plan has surprised experts as a highlight of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s first term was establishing a museum which exhibits the wrongdoings of fascist and communist dictatorial regimes in the country’s history.

Historians have said the right of those contained in the reports to decide their future would hinder further research of the communist regime that ruled the country between 1948 and 1990.

“Records that provide evidence of injustices hold accountable those responsible for abuses of trust and power,” the Association of Canadian Archivists said in a letter last week to Hungary’s ambassador in Ottawa.

International attention to the archive plan was initially raised by Christopher Adam, a history lecturer at Canada’s Carleton University and member of the Canadian archivists’ association.

“Archival records provide evidence documenting the actions of public leaders and protecting the rights of all citizens,” the archivists said.

Allowing people to remove the files “would only weaken Hungarians’ ability to hold those officials accountable and would thus undermine a fundamental pillar of democracy,” wrote association president Loryl MacDonald.

Maria Schmidt, director of Budapest’s House of Terror museum, said she hoped lawmakers would rethink the plan.

“If these files are handed over, facts and connections will be no longer be able to be researched,” Schmidt said. “Without them, we cannot create a precise picture of the regime and we can’t show future generations the meaning of terror, the dictatorship’s manipulativeness and nature and the arising human depravity.”

The museum contains material on Hungary’s relationship to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as exhibits related to organizations, such as the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the communist AVH — similar to the Soviet Union KGB secret police. Part of the exhibition takes visitors to the basement, where they can see examples of the cells the AVH used to break prisoners’ wills.

The government says scientific research will still be guaranteed by the legislation, which has to be drafted by November, but permission for historians to access personal files will have to be granted by the subjects of the files, instead of the institution where the files are stored.

Historians, researchers and other professionals on the subject will be consulted in the legislative process, the justice ministry said.

One challenge the government has not addressed is that the pages in the files usually contain information about more than one person. So, if an original page is removed from the files and given to someone included in the report, it would be impossible for the others to see what was written about them.

Janos Kenedi, a writer and researcher who until Jan. 3 headed an official committee in charge of evaluating thousands of pre-1990 secret files still in the hands of the current secret services, says laws already provide spied-upon individuals protection while still leaving files intact.

“All victims have the right to ask the state security archives to classify any files relating to them for 90 years,” Kenedi said. “But anyone who cuts out pages from the original files with a razor denies others the right to access their own history.”

Also, personal information in the files, such as someone’s religion or sexual orientation, is not available even to researchers.

The House of Terror was one of the highlights of Orban’s first premiership from 1998 to 2002. Many also still remember his groundbreaking speech in 1989 — when Hungary’s transition to democracy was still uncertain — calling for the removal of Soviet troops stationed in the country.

Experts are surprised by Orban’s latest move, as they feel he was finally exposing Hungary’s troubled past. Yet now, they say, he is playing a role in destroying it.

Many say the plan for the archives fits in with several other steps taken by the government since Fidesz, Orban’s party, won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in April 2010 elections.

The overwhelming popular support has emboldened the government to disregard most dissent, weaken basic democratic institutions and distort the system of check and balances.

It has curtailed the powers of the Constitutional Court, neutered the Fiscal Council, a budget watchdog, and created a media law which attracted heavy criticism from the European Union and is feared will allow the government to clamp down on the opposition press.

Many institutions, including the 1956 Institute which studies that year’s anti-Soviet revolution, have seen the government cut their budget and their fate is uncertain.

“The government thinks it can put an end to the past,” Kenedi said. “For Fidesz, history starts and ends with them and what came before in Hungarian history does not exist. Their aim is collective amnesia.”

Politicians may also be hoping to do away with potentially damaging information, experts said.

“It is very difficult to see the destruction of Hungarian archives as anything other than a crude political move on the part of politicians who are concerned about potentially unpleasant and embarrassing documents on their relationship with the former regime that may one day be found by historians,” wrote Adam, the Canadian lecturer and archivist.

An online petition launched by Adam to ensure the archives’ integrity has attracted nearly 2,000 signatures.

Hungary lags behind other former members of the Soviet bloc in fully opening its archives and nearly 30 percent of the files are still classified and under the control of state security.

While some historians and journalists have published the names of informants and agents in books and the Internet, official lists have yet to be made public.

Nonetheless, the names of former communist secret agents — from actors and athletes to politicians, priests and intellectuals — continue to trickle out every few weeks and months.