Kohl maintains low profile as nation's problems intensify Unemployment, divisions in society go unresolved

March 17, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BONN, Germany - Chancellor Helmut Kohl is approaching the halfway point of his fourth term in office since 1982, and the horizon looks bleak.

Unemployment, endemic in the eastern part of the reunified Germany, has eaten into the wealthier western part. Last month, more than 4 million Germans, 10 percent of the work force, were jobless the highest rate in decades.

Deep social divisions are emerging between Germans and ethnic German immigrants from the former Soviet Union. And those strains have heightened a political debate before important regional elections on March 24 that have also conjured a challenge to Mr. Kohl's most cherished visions of an integrated Europe.

So what is Mr. Kohl doing?

Characteristically, nothing of any high visibility, apparently preferring silence in keeping with his longtime adage when the opposition begins to nip at his heels: "The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on."

Mr. Kohl's fortunes have registered a surprisingly rapid turnaround since last summer, when many Germans appeared inclined to support him, partly because the opposition seemed so feeble and partly because he promised a kind of homely stability in face of an uncertain future.

That promise has not been redeemed.

Corporate cutbacks as German companies react to global competition, the high cost of the still-incomplete absorption of the former East Germany and increasing talk of reduced social benefits have all contributed to a sense that Germany at least the old West Germany had become just a bit too comfortable, too complacent for its own good.

For once in a land made wary by its Nazi past of seeking ethnic scapegoats, much German anger seems to have been directed at the more than 1 million ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union who have arrived in Germany since the end of the Cold War.

While economic data tell a different story, Germany's opposition Social Democrats have called the immigrants burdens on the welfare state, accusing them, in the words of Rudolf Scharping, the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, of going "straight onto unemployment benefit or the pension lines."

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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