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Germany

In the West, resentment simmers over reunification payments

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of German reunification, many in western German towns like Gelsenkirchen are asking how much longer they'll have to keep paying for the reconstruction of the formerly communist East.

Smoke stacks at a Gelsenkirchen coal factory

Gelsenkirchen was once a hub for industry

Close to the central train station in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen is a tram stop called Leipzigerstrasse, named after Leipzig, a major city in eastern Germany. The walls of the station are decorated with images of other eastern cities, such as Potsdam, Dresden and Berlin. After more than four decades under the rule of communist East Germany, these cities became rundown, underdeveloped and underfinanced.

But since reunification in 1990, the six former East German states have received around 1.3 trillion euros ($1.76 trillion) in government reconstruction payments under the so-called Solidarity Pact - and the tab is still rising by around 80 billion euros each year. Many people in western German communities such as Gelsenkirchen say this bill has left cities like theirs running on empty.

Local frustration

A mere five minutes walk from the center of Gelsenkirchen it's plain to see that business isn't booming in this shopping area. Many storefronts are boarded up or vacant, and the roads and footpaths are cracked.

Gelsenkirchen resident Claudia says emotions run high whenever the topic of reunification payments is raised because it brings to the fore long-held frustrations over the Solidartiy Pact.

A man begs for money on a Gelsenkirchen street

Gelsenkirchen locals say their city needs more money

"Here in the Ruhr region there are many towns that don't have a lot of money and are staring bankruptcy in the face because of a high level of debt," she says. "At the same time they still have to pay for new streets and schools in the East. Looking at the streets in Gelsenkirchen, it would be good if the same was done here."

Torsten, another Gelsenkirchen resident, says it no longer makes any sense for money to flow exclusively to the eastern states.

"I think some part of the reconstruction payments should be shared, so they don't only go to cities in the East, but also to cities here in the West," he says. "At the moment, Gelsenkirchen needs financial assistance for structural changes. The money should be allocated on the basis of need - and not simply geography."

Neglect of the former West

This is a matter the mayor of Gelsenkirchen, Frank Baranowski, has taken to heart. He speaks of his frustration when visiting cities in the East, like Leipzig, and sees the fruits of city beautification projects and renewed public spaces there. All the while, he says, Gelsenkirchen is being neglected.

"We could use this money for infrastructure projects, and road works in particular," he told Deutsche Welle. "Many of our streets are in a bad state after the recent harsh winter and instead of making temporary repairs we could have been able to build new roads. If we had more money, we could invest more in our schools, we could finance more public infrastructure projects, we could also reduce the city's debts."

Gelsenkirchen mayor Frank Baranowski

Frank Baranowski says it's time for funds to flow to western cities

Baranowski says, however, there are few avenues for disgruntled municipalities in western Germany who want a political rethink of the Solidarity Pact.

"The only thing we can do as a town is to raise the issue of the injustice of the matter at the political level, to show that the money is urgently needed, for example in the Ruhr region, as much as by some towns in the East, and no longer by the whole of the East," he says.

"I think at this point there is no longer a majority who want to see an extension to the Solidarity Pact. But it's here and we have to live with it."

Equal development

An annual report released in September on the progress of reunification said that gross domestic product (GDP) in the states of the former East Germany had reached 73 percent of GDP in their western counterparts. It noted that eastern Germany has made "impressive strides" in terms of economic development.

Berlin-based social scientist Jochen Staadt says this is a sign that the time has come to begin balancing out reconstruction payments so they also benefit western cities like Gelsenkirchen.

Construction cranes over the eastern city of Dresden

The infrastructure in Eastern cities like Dresden have vastly improved since reunification

"It can't be done immediately, but we need to think about how we can slow down support (for the eastern states) and think about how we can redirect some of it to those parts of western Germany, like Gelsenkirchen, so they can return to the level that developed regions in parts of eastern Germany have reached," he told Deutsche Welle.

"There will be other rural parts in the former East that have to be supported for a longer time, but it doesn't have to be in the whole region of the former East German states."

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of German reunification, on October 3, it's clear that the question is increasingly being asked as to who now needs the money more - the East or West. But despite the frustration in cities like Gelsenkirchen, there is no indication from the federal government or the courts that the reconstruction payments will end any time before their mandated expiry date in 2019.

Author: Darren Mara
Editor: Chuck Penfold

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