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German-Czech Relations Sink To New Low

Prague, Feb. 7 (RFE/RL) - The Czech Republic and its powerful neighbor, Germany, are still at an impasse over a declaration on bilateral relations.

Agreement on a declaration, meant to bring an end to historical grievances, has stalled because of an increasingly bitter dispute over World War Two reparations. Prague wants the German government to compensate victims of Nazi war crimes, while Bonn is insisting that Prague recognize the injustice suffered by the estimated three million Sudeten Germans expelled from the Czech Republic at the end of the war.

The German and Czech Foreign Ministers, Klaus Kinkel and Josef Zielenec, held five hours of talks last month in an attempt to break the impasse. But the talks broke down. Kinkel admitted that what he called the "burdens of the past" were too great to reach an agreement on the declaration.

At the heart of the dispute are differing interpretations of the post-war Potsdam agreements, which approved the transfer. German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel caused an uproar in the Czech press last month when he questioned the legality of the Potsdam documents. He told the German newspaper General Anzeiger that the agreement reached at Potsdam conference was a political declaration, not a legal recognition of the expulsion.

Bonn is questioning the Potsdam protocols for three reasons. First, the Potsdam declaration refers to the "orderly and humane" transfer of Sudeten Germans. However, a joint Czech-German commission of historians concluded that between 15,000 and 40,000 Sudeten Germans died during the expulsion.

Second, the German side says that "expulsions" as such violate the concept of self-determination enshrined in international law. The Czech side insists on referring to the expulsion as a "forcible transfer."

Third, Bonn says the agreements are not legally binding because Germany did not take part in the Potsdam conference. But many Czech observers argue that Germany as a defeated power had temporarily handed over its authority to the allies after the war.

The Czech side maintains that the Potsdam agreements, including the measure dealing with Sudeten Germans, form the basis of the post-war order of Europe, and cannot be put into question.

Legal experts say casting doubt on the legality of the post-war expulsion would immediately open up the Czech government to property and land claims from the vocal Sudeten German community now living in Germany. The Czech Foreign Ministry insists that the Potsdam agreements are still "a legitimate part of international law," and is refusing to agree to any text that would open them up to legal claims on property. But Bonn is also trying to avoid an agreement that would lead Sudetens to demand financial compensation from the German government.

Many opposition politicians in Germany, including deputy Bundestag chairwoman Antje Vollmer, have expressed sympathy with the Czech position. Vollmer has said that the draft text of the joint declaration, which has not been made public, contains everything the German side could hope for. She says it includes "regret" for the expulsion, condemnation of the crimes committed during the expulsion, and a moral distancing from the Benes decrees, which stripped Sudeten Germans of their property and Czech citizenship.

Analysts say electoral politics and domestic concerns are noticeably influencing the debate on the declaration. While the current German government is not facing elections in the near future, it is still beholden to the powerful Sudeten lobby in Bavaria, the land in which local government is controlled by the Christian Social Union, one of three parties in the federal coalition.

The head of the Sudeten German Landsmannschaft, Franz Neubauer, recently called on the German government to make Czech membership in the European Union conditional on a renunciation of the Benes decrees.

Czech parliamentary elections are less than four months away. Some analysts say that a post-election Czech government will have more room to maneouver in negotiations with Bonn. Without an agreement, however, Czech-German relations could take center stage in the election campaign.

Already Czech opposition parties have called for an official condemnation of Bonn for its handling of the Sudeten issue. Governing coalition parties yesterday rejected an opposition motion to hold a special parliamentary session to debate problems in relations with Germany and formulate a stance on the negotiations.

Many politicians are urging Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to take up the issue at a special summit. The two leaders have not yet talked about the issue, despite a visit by Klaus to Germany last month.

With negotiations on the declaration indefinately suspended, a breakthrough remains a distant hope.