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A Sorb for all Saxons

Bernd Gräßler / bwAugust 31, 2014

Stanislaw Tillich has secured another election victory in Saxony. The fact that he is Sorbian, an eastern European ethnic minority group, matters little to Saxony's residents.

Stanislaw Tillich Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Image
Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Years ago, Stanislaw Tillich, of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, himself rode with the traditional Sorbian Easter riders in Lusatia. At the time, he was not yet the state of Saxony's premier, and since taking over the office he has given up participating in the religious procession of the Slavic minority group he belongs to because of scheduling difficulties, according to the Dresden state chancellery. The Catholic state leader, however, does still try to attend weekly Mass with his family.

Being photographed as the premier on horseback might at least lift Tillich out of political obscurity. He is not known for making large public appearances, throwing his weight around in federal politics, or a visible desire for a post in not-so-distant Berlin. Instead, his trademarks are a down-to-earth manner and allowing his ministers cope with crises.

Saxony has shown steady economic development, is second only to Bavaria when it comes to keeping down state debt and its students shine in educational testing. Opinions differ on how much credit Tillich should receive for any of this, as many give the credit first and foremost to Kurt Biedenkopf, a predecessor.

'The better Merkel'

Tillich, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is definitely popular. He can again count on about 40 percent of the vote in the coming state elections on Sunday. Political critics have said the 55-year-old Tillich does little, other than cutting a good figure. Always impeccably dressed, he has led the most populous eastern German state with a steady hand and without personal scandals. Some observers have compared him with Merkel. The political satirist and European parliamentarian Martin Sonneborn even joked that Tillich is "the better Merkel."

When Tillich won the election in 2009, it was supposed to bring about increased prestige for the Sorbs, said David Statnik, the chairman of the Sorbian Association of Domowina. The Sorbs have for centuries been settled in Lusatia, which was dominated by the western Slavs in the early Middle Ages. Sorbs have co-existed peacefully in Lusatia, a region that in current day eastern Germany and western Poland, for a long time. Some 60,000 Sorbs have neither a motherland nor do they demand autonomy. Because German citizens are not required to indicate their ethnicity, one can only estimate the number of Sorbs. Their umbrella association, the Domowina, was banned under the Nazis. In the former East Germany, the Sorbs were lauded and regarded as a model minority. Today as well, the constitutions of Brandenburg and Saxony provide for the protection of their language and culture, though to be sure, less and less Sorbian youth profess their ethnicity or learn the language of their parents.

Sorbs on horseback for an Easter procession Photo: Andreas Franke** pixel
Tillich, an ethnic Sorb, used to take part in their traditional Easter rideImage: picture alliance/Andreas Franke
Merkel walking with Tillich Photo: REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz
Tillich has drawn comparisons with Merkel for leading Saxony with a steady hand and without scandalImage: Reuters

'Our premier'

Tillich comes from a family in which traditions are well-kept. The engineering graduate, who joined the CDU in 1987 and as communist East Germany fell, he seized the chance to have a political career, speaks German as well as Sorbian. "I can carry out conversations with Mr. Tillich in our native language," Statnik said happily. His commitment to protecting minorities has always been respected, Statnik told DW.

That the premier also speaks Czech and Polish helps facilitate cooperation with both of Saxony's eastern neighbors.

Saxons regard it as completely normal that a Sorb is at the head of the Saxon "Free State." In 2009, the words "one Saxony" stood on CDU election posters in large letters. The campaign poster did not address the issue of a Sorb also being a Saxon, but instead that after two state leaders with western German ancestry, for the first time a local was running to take the helm. In this election, the CDU placed Tillich's portrait on election placards with the headline, "our premier."