German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping is under pressure to resign just as the troops under his control are to join the NATO weapons-collecting mission in Macedonia. The opposition accuses Scharping of wasting public money by using government planes for private flights during the Macedonia crisis. The media suggests he is distracted from his duties by his personal happiness with his fiancee. RFE/RL Munich correspondent Roland Eggleston reports on a sidelight to Germany's involvement in Macedonia.
Munich, 3 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- As Germany's defense minister, Rudolf Scharping has won broad approval from his colleagues in government and even from the opposition. He is commended for his commitment to the well-being of soldiers and for his efforts to maintain an efficient military machine despite cuts in the military budget ordered by the economy-minded chancellor.
But in the past few days all this has ended. The opposition is demanding his resignation, charging he misused public money and government aircraft and is no longer capable of doing his job. Their demands are dismissed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who says Scharping did not break any regulations. But even within government circles some have publicly shown their irritation with the minister's conduct.
In the view of some politicians and the media, the background to the defense minister's troubles is his public devotion to his fiancee, Countess Kristina Pilati, for whom he divorced his wife several months ago.
As the Macedonian crisis developed at the beginning of August, Scharping and his fiancee were vacationing together on the Spanish island of Mallorca and remained there. Some critics say Scharping should have been in Berlin supporting Schroeder in his negotiations with the opposition to win approval for sending German soldiers to Macedonia.
In the middle of the negotiations, a weekly magazine published photographs of the defense minister and his fiancee frolicking and kissing in a swimming pool.
Scharping was criticized for what many considered a breach of good taste at a time when German soldiers were preparing to go on a dangerous mission. One magazine wrote: "Soldiers at the Front; Scharping in the Pool."
Finally, last week, the German parliament was recalled from summer holidays to approve the dispatch of 500 soldiers to Macedonia.
At Scharping's request, a military aircraft flew to Mallorca to take him to Berlin for the session. After it was over, a military plane flew him back to the island. The plane returned to Germany. Next morning, another military machine went to Mallorca to pick him up and take him to Skopje to visit the troops.
The daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" referred critically to what it called Scharping's "rush to return to his summer vacation and the waiting arms of his fiancee." It said a minister who left the impression that personal happiness was more important than anything else must be prepared to answer questions about how he perceives his official duties.
A senior official of the opposition Christian Democrats, Friedrich Merz, was more critical. Merz said such a minister was unacceptable to either the German public or the military.
"It is difficult to persuade the German public to accept such a minister and impossible for the soldiers of the armed forces. I demand that the federal chancellor take action to end all this."
But Scharping tells reporters there is nothing to criticize in his behavior. In interviews at the weekend he pointed out that ministers recalled to work while on holiday are legally entitled to have a government aircraft pick them up and afterward take them back to their holiday home.
At least two other ministers used government aircraft to get to Berlin for the special session on Macedonia.
Scharping also rejects criticism he should have been working in Berlin at the beginning of the Macedonian crisis instead of vacationing.
He told reporters he kept in touch with his ministry even while on holiday and worked up to five hours a day. If he managed his time so that he could also have a rest, he said, that was good for his ability to do his job.
"Even on holiday, I do not simply lie on the beach. Every day I am frequently in contact with my ministry. I work three to five hours each day and I believe that if I manage my work so that I can enjoy a little rest...then that is good."
As for his personal life, Scharping told one newspaper he would continue to present himself to the public with his wife-to-be as "happy, contented and without a care."
The criticism has not abated. Paul Breuer, the parliamentary defense spokesman for the opposition Christian Democrats, says that "at a time when fighter jets are grounded because of a lack of parts and money, Scharping is using the armed forces' last pfennig for hot nights on Mallorca."
The total cost of what is ironically being dubbed "Operation Scharping" was around 400,000 marks (about $200,000). The opposition spokesman Friedrich Merz said: "And this at a time when the German military is being advised to save even on toilet paper."
Merz said the pressure on Scharping would increase if an investigation showed that he had misused public money through his use of government aircraft.
"Things will get tight for Rudolf Scharping if the accusations against him prove correct. Then the federal chancellor will have to take the proper action. Because a defense minister who is so distracted that he does not know what is play and what is work -- that is a problem for Germany."
At the weekend, some of the criticism of the defense minister abated after Schroeder made clear that Scharping had the right to use government aircraft to pick him up from his holiday home when he had to work.
But the opposition made clear it would not let the matter rest. It now wants to investigate flights Scharping made on government aircraft between Berlin and Frankfurt, where his fiancee lives. Scharping says the flights were made on official business. The opposition says it is possible that some of them were private.