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German election shadowed by wall of perception


By Richard Blystone
CNN Senior Correspondent

September 25, 1998
Web posted at: 2:47 p.m. EDT (1447 GMT)

In this story:

BONN, Germany (CNN) -- You see the headlines again and again, as perhaps the most important election in Germany's recent history heads down to the wire: "Eastern Germany could cost Kohl the election."

Chancellor Helmut Kohl's deficit in opinion polls came as a surprise to many Germans, and to many more observers.

Kohl, after all, was the liberator who pulled off the political masterstroke of reuniting East and West, and who diverted vast amounts of Germany's treasure toward rehabilitating the East.

But you could have seen Sunday's close election coming some 8 1/2 years ago, as the Iron Curtain was dissolving.

Kohl, of the Christian Democrats (CDU), is seeking a record fifth term as chancellor  

When the Wall came down

We were there on a CNN project called, "An Iron Curtain Odyssey," and we watched as the Mercedes and BMWs headed East and their East German parodies, the Trabants and Wartburgs, headed West.

The 17 million people of East Germany were the envy of the Soviet bloc. Their tractors were the most reliable, their washing-machine industry the most nimble and forward-looking, their shops the best-supplied.

When the wall came down, a lot of those people headed West, for jobs or for kicks.

But those who stayed home to receive the Western invasion got a preview they didn't like: Their wealthy, confident cousins storming in to sell things, cut deals, buy up cheap sausages and demand their Eastern parents' property back.

And to tell the "Ossies," the Easterners, how they ought to do things.

"The Bundesbuerger," one fuming Ossie told us in 1990, "they'll come over here and buy our houses, and we'll just have to wipe our noses and pay rent on what we built ourselves."

"They don't know you have to do a day's work for a day's pay," said a Western contractor of his Eastern laborers building a border crossing. "They've had 40 years of job therapy but never a real job."

"I think we'll just have to accept it," said a young woman in the East, "because we are the weaker ones."

Gerhard Schroeder, of the Social Democrats (SPD), led in many pre-election polls  

A gap at the border

They are still the weaker ones, and they don't like it a bit better now than they did then. In fact, some analysts say the social gap between the East and the West has been growing.

We talked with a border guard on Germany's eastern frontier with Poland. He came from the old East German army. He said that while the new Bundesgrenzschutz -- the Federal Border Police -- didn't recruit those associated with the shooting of escapees, at least the government didn't send in all "Wessies."

It's a job, he said, and he's glad of that while unemployment in the East is more than 17 percent -- twice as high as in the West. But start talking about pay, and he gets angry.

He and his colleaues are paid less because it's supposed to be cheaper in the East, he says; but while some things are cheaper, housing's more expensive.

They're paid 85 percent of what their counterparts get in the Western German states, he says; they say those in the East do only 85 percent as much work, but that's not true.

In the West, they do say things like that.

In eight years, the Wessies have shelled out more than a half-trillion dollars on rebuilding the East, hobbling their own lifestyles and economy.

All the while, many grouse the Ossies are still locked into the old communist something-for-nothing mentality and had better quit complaining and come out of it soon.

"They don't think of us as people," one Easterner complained last week. "They think of us as a problem that has to be taken in hand."

Graffiti on a Kohl sign in East Germany asks, "Can you give us work?"  

'We only want to work'

But Eastern Germany is where you find Dresden and Leipzig, proud centers of pre-World War II industry and culture. There, too, are the people who had the courage to breach the Wall and finally rise up against the regime.

Michael Vester, a political science professor in Hanover, rails at the West's easy assumption that 40 years of communism squelched the Easterners' enterprising spirit.

While much of the East's elite did flee during the communist era, surviving in a police state takes plenty of talent and initiative, he notes.

A one-to-one trade of old East marks for mighty deutschmarks was a kind of bonanza. But swift reunion, with no period of adjustment, cost East German industry its ability to compete by selling cheaper. Dilapidated and overstaffed factories closed, and the region hemorrhaged jobs.

"We only want to work," said a woman cutting weeds in one of the government's work programs.

Kohl has created 100,000 such jobs this year: restoring castles, sewing costumes, washing statues, counting trees. The Easterners think they know what it's about: votes.

"It's not those people's fault to be as they are," Vester said. "Nor are they only victims. I think it's very sad that the West Germans didn't learn to respect them."

Shifting focus, slowly

If they aren't learning to respect them, perhaps it's because they don't see much of them.

Many Western Germans still have their gaze locked on Western Europe and the United States. Many don't visit the East unless they have to, Vester says; they don't seem to be interested.

It's reminiscent of a saying attributed to the late U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: "Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it."

And where, observers may wonder, are the Ossie ambassadors, board chairmen, generals and judges? It seems there's been little room at the top for Ossies in the united Germany. Whatever Cabinet is formed after the election is expected to have only one or two, in minor positions.

But no one spends billions of dollars for nothing. You see the Germans' hope of something in the spruced-up roads, phone system and buildings, and the growing number of small- and medium-sized businesses.

And the Iron Curtain that is still in the minds of many will also dissolve, says an Eastern-born Westerner in charge of an Eastern job program.

"It'll take another five years," he says. "Then we'll start to pass them."

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