In unified Germany, Soviet troops create tensions

December 02, 1990|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

MERSEBURG, Germany -- The map on the wall in Steffen Eichner's office explains everything: To the north and south are huge chemical factories, in the middle is a Soviet air base, and next to it is his hometown.

"The worst case would be an absolute catastrophe. A fighter crashes into one of the works, chlorine gas escapes, forms a cloud and is blown over the city, leaving thousands dead," said Mr. Eichner, head of the Merseburg county environmental department and organizer of a citizens committee to stop the Soviets from using their base.

The chance of a disaster is not fanciful. In the past 10 years there have been two crashes, although in both cases the pilots managed to avoid the enormous works.

The former Communist government in this eastern German city of 100,000 had planned to have the base closed, but it didn't want to go against its Soviet patrons and agreed 15 years ago TC not only to keep the base open but also to allow its expansion.

Today, after German reunification and with the Soviet Union's pledge to withdraw its troops by 1994, the base still is used, and MiG-29 fighters still swoop over the city and between the chemical plants when they land.

Merseburg is a dramatic example of the tensions between the Soviet troops and the once-silent German population, but there are scores of other examples where the discontented Soviet military and the newly democratic eastern Germany are not mixing very well.

So changed is the situation in former East Germany that the Soviet military did the previously unthinkable and invited the press to talk with Gen. Boris Snetkow, commander of the West Group of the Soviet armed forces.

General Snetkow admitted that some problems did exist but said that the Western press had exaggerated them. The Soviets now weresensitive to the local population, he said, but the Germans were guilty of exacerbating a "delicate situation."

"We have opened the army up for the local population to see and are trying to build a good relationship with the media. For our part, we're doing everything possible," General Snetkow said.

Local citizens groups, however, tell a different story. In sharp contrast to U.S. troops stationed in western Germany, ordinary Soviet soldiers are forbidden to make contact with Germans; the few officers who meet local delegates usually are friendly and open but seem to have little power or authority to make substantial changes. Mr. Eichner, for example, said that his group had made little headway with the local commander and that the Soviets were "extremely secretive" about their plans.

General Snetkow, however, said the Germans should be happy that the Soviet withdrawal was under way and that by the year's end twoarmored divisions would have left. He ruled out, however, an early pullout from Germany and also refused to disclose the military's timetable, although he acknowledged that it might help ease tensions if people -- such as the residents of Merseburg -- knew when their nearby Soviet base would be closed.

Although the soldiers will be staying, their discipline in the face of German plenty may leave something to be desired. There is mounting evidence that, despite the general's vigorous denials, some of his 370,000 soldiers, who earn about $10 a month, are selling weapons for hard currency.

The same day that General Snetkow met the press, for example, a 22-year-old Soviet soldier was arrested in a weapons store near Berlin and charged with having sold his AK-47 machine gun. Two Berlin men later were arrested with the weapon and said they paid about $225 for it.

The arrested man was also a deserter, but General Snetkow said the Western press was exaggerating this problem, too. Instead of the reported 53 defectors, only 36 had deserted for the West, he said, but he acknowledged that there were 83 men who had become "separated from their units."

These cases did not reflect a deep-seated morale problem in the army, he said. Despite the ill will that some incidents have caused, regular military exercises will continue, General Snetkow said. He said that although the military was flexible, it saw no way to stop training or to give up the huge tracts of land it controlled and used for large-scale exercises.

As for the situation in Merseburg, General Snetkow said the air force already had cut down the number of flights and that jets no longer flew on weekends. But he said that as long as the Soviet armed forces were in Germany, they would continue to fly, drive and march -- with or without residents' approval.

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