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East Germans Vent Anger at Social Cuts

Hardy Graupner (sp)
August 10, 2004

Public protests against the government’s social and economic reforms reached a new peak Monday night, as tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in over 30 cities mainly in former communist East Germany.

Just like 1989: "We are the people," reads the signImage: AP

On the surface, Leipzig in the eastern federal state of Saxony seems like any other German town. There’s a lot of building work going on in the city center, and a band nearby is playing live music for the customers at an open-air café.

But this first impression is deceptive. Leipzig these days resembles a powder keg of social unrest.

In front of the city’s St. Nicholas’ Church, 8,000 people gathered Monday evening to debate about the government’s latest social reform plan to merge social and welfare benefits, which will see payouts for the long-term unemployed slashed to the rate of subsistence-level handouts.

Montagsdemo in Leipzig
Tousands demonstrated in Leipzig on MondayImage: AP

The protesters cited a confusing mixture of arguments for their participation in the street protests. But all of them were clear that that German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats in Berlin have lost touch with the not-so-well-off in society.

"I don't come here for watching, I come here for protesting these politics in Germany," one of them told DW-RADIO. "This is not social democratic politics, it's politics for the big business people."

The sentiment was echoed by another demonstrator, who moved from Great Britain to Leipzig in the early 1990s and is now on the dole himself. The large-scale protests that Germany is witnessing these days are absolutely justified and timely, he said.

An attack on social benefits

The demonstrations on Monday amount to one of the biggest attacks on social benefits in the post-war history of Germany and are particularly poignant in former communist East Germany. That's because the new social policies, part of Schröder's controversial Agenda 2010 reform package, are expected to particularly hurt regions of former East Germany where unemployment is as high as 17 to 20 percent.

Eastern Germany has been plagued by high unemployment since national reunification in 1990 as unprofitable former state-run enterprises were closed down. In July, the jobless rate was at 18.5 percent, more than double the figure in the wealthier western states.

There are fears that the reforms will drive thousands in eastern Germany into poverty.

Regular "Monday demonstrations"

Ein, zwei, viele Hartz
Hundreds also gathered in JenaImage: AP

German protest organizers have called for regular "Monday demonstrations," recalling weekly demonstrations 15 years ago in East Germany against the dying communist regime.

Back in 1989, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Leipzig to call for regime change. Now they’ll be out on the streets again every Monday hoping to reform the system from within.

German Economics and Labor minister Wolfgang Clement has voiced his indignation at the parallel being drawn with historic anti-communist protests, but the infuriated masses are unimpressed.

"It is our right to decide on which day we go on the street and have our protest. It's not Mr. Clement's decision," said one demonstrator. "We have two different problems: In 1989, people fought for freedom. Now we are fighting for social justice. Two different elements, but they belong together. And if you want to separate them, there is no freedom without social justice and there is no social justice without freedom."

Like all the others marching in Leipzig, this man didn’t buy the government’s argument that the merging of social and welfare benefits will bring more people back into employment. He fears that social unrest will reach a new high when the measure is introduced in January of next year.

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