Kohl loses favor with East Germans Reunification problems may cost him election

September 19, 1998|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MERSEBURG, Germany -- Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Lothar Drewitz has lost his job, his marriage and his hope in the future. Now, the 50-year-old engineer who once toiled for a state-owned metal firm in the rigid East German system fears he may never again find steady work in a unified Germany.

"I had huge expectations," Drewitz says. "I was full of euphoria. But I must tell you, I am very disappointed."

Drewitz is among the 1.29 million unemployed "Ossis" -- easterners -- who have discovered that freedom has brought hard economic times. Drewitz doesn't know which party he will vote for when Germany holds its national elections Sept. 27. But he does know which individual he will be voting against -- German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

After 16 years in power, Kohl and the Christian Democrats could be on their way out, replaced by left-leaning Gerhard Schroeder and the Social Democrats.

The easterners whose votes rescued Kohl in the 1994 election may be determined to bring him down in this one. To outsiders, that turn of electoral fate would seem the ultimate irony, for it was Kohl who presided over one of the 20th century's climactic moments -- the peaceful reunification in 1990 of Communist-backed East Germany with West Germany.

But Kohl's promise of creating "flowering landscapes" for the east has not yet been fulfilled. Since reunification, the German government has pumped more than $700 billion into the five eastern states and the city of Berlin. Roads, rails, buildings and telephone systems have been renovated. Environmental waste has been cleaned up. Private companies have invested billions more in new shopping malls and new factories.

The Trabant, the ugly, belching car that symbolized the creaking East German state, has been run off the road by drivers buying new BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.

But many eastern workers have been left behind. Unemployment in the east averages 17 percent, compared with 9 percent in the larger west. Overall, 4.1 million Germans are out of work.

"I'm fatalistic," says Hilmar Schneider, an economist with the Halle Institute. "Things are not as bad as people feel they are. But the pressure to improve things is not yet high enough."

Divided for five decades following the end of World War II, Germany has found that reunification is a difficult process, made even harder by unfulfilled economic and social aspirations. Some westerners view the easterners as ungrateful anchors on the economy. Some easterners blanch at the perceived arrogance of western Germans who want to tell them how to run their lives and survive in a free market.

To many Germans, eastern politics have also grown more ominous -- and extremist. The right-wing German People's Union party won nearly 13 percent of the vote in state elections this year in Saxony-Anhalt. And the party didn't draw support just from neo-Nazi skinheads. It also struck a chord with unemployed workers who were drawn by an anti-immigrant slogans, such as "Jobs for Germans."

Even easterners who have succeeded, who hold steady jobs, own new cars and new refrigerators, are having difficulty adjusting to life in a Western economy. Some are even beginning view life under the old Communist regime with rose-colored glasses.

"It was cozier," says social worker Anja Kretschmer. "You talked a lot while lining up for bananas."

Hans-Joachim Maaz, a psychotherapist who has written and lectured extensively on the divisions between the two Germanys, says that it is difficult to say if people are happier and genuinely satisfied.

"I earn more money," he says. "I am more important. I travel a lot. All of that is good. But there is competition. You have to find your way. There is so much of everything. You have to concentrate on the essential things so you don't lose your way. There is a loss of intensity in relations. People move apart. And there is more stress in life."

That stress can be seen in a place like Merseburg, once in the heart of the former German Democratic Republic's old petrochemical triangle, southwest of Berlin. On the surface, all appears fine. Blocks of grim Communist-era housing have been spruced up. The roads are smoothly paved. At a gleaming mall, (( the parking lot is filled with shiny new cars.

Yet there is a sense of despondency. The unemployment rate has soared above 20 percent. Despite generous unemployment benefits, retraining programs, and even jobs programs, there is a fear for the future.

State-owned factories around here once provided tens of thousands of jobs, while poisoning the air and the earth. Now, they're shut. Western firms like Dow Chemical and Elf Aquitaine have opened new, cleaner plants, but they provide far fewer jobs.

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