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Germany

Köhler Stokes Fires of East-West Discontent

German President Horst Köhler has caused tension between the eastern and western regions by saying that it is unlikely the former East will ever have the same living and employment standards as the rest of the country.

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German President Horst Köhler's words come at a critical time

German President Horst Köhler poured fuel on the simmering embers of Germany's current east-west discontent when comments suggesting that standards of living in the former East Germany cannot realistically be brought up to those of the more prosperous western states appeared in the German press on Sunday.

Köhler, the former head of the International Monetary Fund, increased tensions inside the country over the financial costs of reunification by stating in an interview with newsmagazine Focus that differences existed inside the country between north and south, east and west. Providing subsidies to bridge those differences, particularly in the six Eastern states, would burden the younger generation with very high debts.

"There were and are everywhere in the republic large differences in living standards," Köhler was quoted as saying. "If you want to level them out, you cement the subsidized state and place an intolerable burden of debt on the young generation. We must get away from the subsidized state."

Aufbau Ost Allee der Kosmonauten Plattenbau

An apartment complex in the Marzahn neighborhood in eastern Berlin

Nearly 15 years after the Berlin Wall fell, unemployment in the eastern states is more than twice the level in the western part of the country. Under a so-called "solidarity pact" that expires in 2020, billions of euros are being transferred east in a bid to equalize living standards.

A special government-appointed commission recently concluded on the state of the eastern German economy and how difficult it will be to bring it up to western German levels. The report said the massive injection of more than €1.25 trillion ($1.5 trillion), into the eastern states since 1990 has not created jobs or helped to create a new manufacturing base.

Remarks fuel growing debate

Köhler's comments come at a time when protests against a government drive to trim social programs, in particular a new law that will cut benefits for the long-term jobless, are stoking seething resentment in the eastern states. The interview also comes just days after a report that suggested every fourth western German and every eighth eastern German wanted a return of the Berlin Wall.

Plakate der rechtsextremen NPD gegen die Reformen von Hartz IV hängen am Montag (16.08.2004) an Lichtmasten einer verkehrsreichen Straße in Leipzig.

An election poster for the rightextremist National Party of Germany (NPD) against the government's social welfare reforms

His remarks, made a week before voters in the eastern German states of Brandenburg and Saxony go to the polls to elect state governments are likely to be exploited by the far-right parties as well as the Party of Democratic Socialists (PDS), the successor to the East German communist party. The reform proposals have been seized on by opposition parties, eager to fight the debate on an apparent east-west divide.

The ruling Social Democrats have already experienced the backlash of public opinion, tasting resounding defeat in the regional elections in the western state of Saarland, as citizens of the eastern regions fight back against the welfare reforms which will affect them the most.

Schröder calls on one country, one people

In response to Köhler's remarks, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder told Inforadio Berlin-Brandenburg: "We are one country, one people and we must do politics for all of Germany."

Christoph Matschie, the SPD leader in the eastern German state of Thuringia, told the International Herald Tribune that Köhler had "instigated a highly dangerous debate," adding it would strengthen feelings in the Western states that the East Germans have had enough financial support.

Reactions suggest concern

Wolfgang Böhmer, the premier of the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, said the constitution itself stipulates the goal of bringing poorer states up to the average standard of the more well-off ones, implying Köhler was questioning those principles.

Time's Runing Out

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (left) and Brandenburg's Premier Matthias Platzeck at a party conference in August.

Matthias Platzeck (photo, right), the Social Democratic prime minister of Brandenburg who still hopes to continue sharing power with the conservative Christian Democrats after elections next Sunday, said it was "obvious to me there are differences among the regions. The question is how wide they are."

Iris Gleicke, a deputy minister for eastern German reconstruction, described the president's argument in the Sächsische Zeitung daily as "absurd" while Lothar Bisky, the leader of the ex-communist PDS told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper: "Whether deliberately or not, Köhler is questioning special support for the east. Horst Köhler cannot leave east Germans in the lurch 15 years after the big change."

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