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Germany: Schroeder Ends a 'Listening' Tour Of Eastern Germany

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder today completed an unusual 10-day tour of Germany's former communist eastern states whose main goal was to encourage them to press for economic recovery. But, reports RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston, at every opportunity Schroeder condemned violence by the extreme right against foreigners and minorities.

Munich, 1 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The economic and social problems faced by eastern Germany are discussed almost daily in the German media. So it is surprising that Schroeder's trip was the first such high-level comprehensive tour of the region in the 10 years since German unification.

Schroeder's itinerary deliberately ignored large cities, such as Dresden, and most big towns. His tour's 40 stops were almost entirely in small towns and at the sites of small enterprises, many of which are struggling to survive. His aides said that Schroeder's main goal was to "listen to the complaints of eastern Germans and reassure them that Berlin is determined on the economic recovery of their region."

In keeping with this approach, Schroeder left behind his business suits and took off his jacket to address the crowds in shirtsleeves. One of his typical lines was to say he sympathized with those who found themselves "thrown into insecurity from what seemed to be a secure existence during the communist period."

Schroeder argued that eastern Germany was going through a period of recovery similar to that which followed World War II. "This," he repeated in town after town, "is a recovery like our parents must have known after the war."

Eastern Germany remains poor, although western Germany has given it more than $600 billion in state aid since unification. That amounts to about 5 percent of the western Germany's total output.

Despite the aid, the Berlin government says that gross domestic product per person in the eastern states is still barely half that in the west. The east's unemployment rate -- more than 17 percent -- is more than twice as high as the west's. In some places visited by Schroeder in the past few days, joblessness is as high as 23 percent.

Schroeder's second goal was to urge more civil courage against neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists. Germany has been shocked by a recent series of savage attacks on foreigners and minorities in its eastern states.

Although home to less than one-fifth of all Germans, the east last year accounted for nearly half the 746 violent crimes linked to far-right extremism. Many analysts blame the growth of right-wing extremism on the high unemployment among young people in eastern Germany and a widespread feeling that they have no future.

At nearly every opportunity, the Chancellor condemned the extreme right and said severe measures were needed to curb its violence. In a park in Dessau, he laid a wreath at a monument erected on the spot where three young men attacked an immigrant from Mozambique in June. The immigrant [Alberto Adriano], who had lived in Germany for 12 years, died of his injuries. His attackers this week were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.

Schroeder made the point in all his speeches that racism was not just an eastern German problem, although it is eastern Germany which captures most of the headlines. He said:

"Rightwing extremism is not limited to eastern Germany. It is an all-German problem. A big majority of the population rejects it, in both western and eastern Germany. We must not make the mistake of unloading on eastern Germany a problem that affects us all."

The chancellor's constant refrain was that eastern Germans could be proud of what they have achieved in difficult conditions. In a characteristic statement, Schroeder told an audience in Luckenwalde they had traveled half of the road to prosperity and should show the same determination in the remaining half.

"[The people] have reason to be proud of their achievements, which were often reached under severe conditions. But there's still a lot to do. I have said clearly that we have traveled half of the road to prosperity. But it is only half of the road and now we must travel the remaining half."

Despite his praise, Schroeder avoided giving east Germans concrete promises of how they would be helped to complete the road to prosperity. His aides said he deliberately avoided the sort of promises of a glowing future made after unification by former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. At the time, Kohl promised his government would turn eastern Germany into what he called a "flourishing landscape" -- only to see it disintegrate into almost complete industrial collapse.

Schroeder's main pledge was that his government would extend the special financial assistance from the Berlin government for eastern Germany. The funds come from a tax on western Germans known as the solidarity tax. It is due to expire in 2004.