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Germany

Schröder Fears Protests Could Erode Unity

Chancellor Schröder said he feared growing opposition against his social reforms could damage unity between eastern and western Germany as protest organizers gear up for another round of weekly Monday demonstrations.

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People in eastern Germany have taken to the streets to protest the reforms

Choosing to talk to Super Illu, a weekly magazine popular in former communist eastern Germany, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said he was concerned that growing resentment against his labor market reform package was creating a rift between the once-divided states of the country.

Gerhard Schröder in Ostdeutschland

Gerhard Schröder, surrounded by bodyguards and journalists, during a visit to the eastern German town of Wittenberge.

The chancellor said that though there was no real danger of division, there was "cause for concern."

"I make every effort to prevent any form of east-west confrontation," Schröder told the magazine. "We are one people, we belong together and the east still needs the solidarity of the west," he said.

Growing anger over reforms

The chancellor's statements come in the face of signs of growing anger and disillusionment particularly in eastern Germany over Hartz IV, the biggest labor market and social reforms in Germany's postwar history.

The government says they are necessary to revive the country's struggling economy and save a social system threatened with collapse due to high unemployment and an aging population. Long-term unemployment benefits are to be reduced to the level of social welfare payments, meaning a large cut in income for many families.

Proteste gegen Schröder in Brandenburg

Protestors whistle and clap during demonstrations against Hartz IV in Brandenburg.

Surveys show that more westerners than easterners support the reforms. The changes have brought thousands of Germans out to the streets for so-called "Monday demonstrations" over the past three weeks, primarily in eastern Germany, where the economy is weakest and unemployment is highest.

Schröder: reforms won't be diluted

Last week anger boiled over when Schröder became the target of egg-throwers during a trip to the east German town of Wittenberge. The incident was repeated during the chancellor's visit to Brandenburg on Friday.

Despite mounting frustration and public ire, Schröder said he was convinced that in the long term, people would realize the necessity of the reforms. Then one could have a better dialogue without "Monday demonstrations and egg-throwing", the chancellor said.

Schröder also insisted that the so-called Hartz IV reforms, named after Peter Hartz, the Volkswagen manager who shaped them, would not be watered down. "Showing sensitivity and trying to relieve people's fears does not mean changing, it means explaining why what we are doing is necessary," Schröder said.

"SPD a party for all people"

Even chairman of the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD), Franz Müntefering said he was against attempts at creating rifts between the east and the west and repeated his invitation to protest organizers against the labor reforms to sit down for talks.

"The SPD is a party for all the people," Müntefering said after a meeting of top SPD leaders in Berlin on Sunday. Earlier the SPD's party executive strongly endorsed the reforms with the exception of one person.

Even German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Green party, the junior partner in the governing coalition, rejected accusations that and he and his party had done too little to communicate the reforms and their impact to the people.

Fischer has announced he is prepared to make an appearance at a Monday demonstration in Leipzig. The Monday demonstrations were originally held 15 years ago during the dying days of the communist regime.

Widening scale of protests

Meanwhile organizers of protests against Hartz IV are mobilizing people to turn out in larger numbers for the Monday demonstrations as well as improving coordination to expand the weekly protests to a nation-wide movement.

They are also planning a large procession in Berlin on October 2, a day before German Reunification Day.

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