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Germany: Former Communists Join Berlin City Government

Twelve years after the fall of communism, the successor to East Germany's Communist Party is joining the government of the city-state of Berlin. The development angers Germany's conservative political parties, which have been seeking a role in the Berlin government for themselves. They also fear it could damage the economic recovery of the heavily indebted city.

Munich, 18 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It was a historic day for Germany.

Only 12 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the downfall of the East German Communist Party, its successor party joined the government of the capital of a united Germany yesterday.

The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), as the former Communists are called, has three ministers in the city government against five for the Social Democrats (SPD), led by Governing Mayor Klaus Wowereit. Together, the two parties have a comfortable majority in the city parliament.

The new government was approved by the city's parliament yesterday. It followed elections in October that ended a coalition of the Social Democrats with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The CDU was damaged by a series of financial scandals involving party officials.

Today, the CDU said it fears the PDS's success in Berlin could be a prelude to a possible role for the former communists in the national government after elections in September.

Professor Christoph Stoelzl -- who was minister for science and culture in the previous Berlin city government -- told reporters that the SPD is smoothing the way for the rehabilitation of the former communists.

"Today, the Social Democrats opened the door to power in Germany for the communists," Stoelzl said.

Another opposition party, the Free Democrats, say the SPD has "broken a political taboo" by including the PDS in the government. The Free Democrats were originally offered a role in the coalition but withdrew when the SPD would not meet their conditions. The environmentalist Greens were also offered a place in the coalition but withdrew for the same reason.

Even some members of the Berlin SPD told reporters today they are distressed by the decision to form a coalition with the former communists. At least 12 of them who suffered during the communist control of East Berlin say they are considering leaving the SPD. One of them, Dietrich Neubauer, calls the inclusion of the PDS an "affront to their conscience."

For many Germans, it was an equal shock to learn that PDS leader Gregor Gysi will hold the economic portfolio in the Berlin city government. In this position, he will carry major responsibility for the economic recovery of the bankrupt German capital, which has debts of almost $36 billion. A senior member of the CDU says this is like "appointing an arsonist to put out fires."

Both the CDU and the Free Democrats say they fear international investors will not want to put money into Berlin if a former communist is in charge of the economy. They also recall that Gysi, a lawyer, has frequently been accused of association with the Stasi, the East German secret police. However, government investigators found no evidence to support these accusations in a long inquiry a year ago. Gysi himself denies any association with the Stasi and did so again after yesterday's vote.

He told reporters he expects his post as economics minister will be very difficult. He said he will have to take unpopular decisions and probably cut many jobs in his effort to return the city to prosperity.

The PDS owes its entry into government to its unexpected success in the city elections in October. The elections were won by the Social Democrats, followed by the Christian Democrats. But overall support for the PDS was so strong that the party nearly secured second place. It finished only about 1 percent behind the once-powerful Christian Democrats.

The PDS's triumph came in the eastern part of Berlin formerly under communist rule, where it won around 48 percent of the total vote. In western Berlin, it won around 7 percent -- the best result it has ever had in that part of the city.

Gysi said the goal of the PDS is to increase its strength in eastern Germany while trying to win voters in the West. He said there is "no real chance" the PDS might be invited to join the federal government after this year's election, but that it might be possible after elections in 2006.

Gysi says it is time Germans in the western part of the country recognize that their fears about the former communists are unfounded and show understanding for the fact that those from the east have a different history.

"We must break down our prejudices, break down our fears and show understanding for the fact that others see things differently because they experienced another type of socialization," Gysi said.

Gysi says he believes that giving the PDS a role in the Berlin government will help bridge the huge divide that still exists between the east and the more prosperous west. Many East Germans feel they are second-class citizens in the new Germany. They are paid less than their western counterparts; unemployment in the east is far higher; and there are fewer overall opportunities. Gysi says it is time Germans "became a really united nation."

These hopes are unlikely to be realized unless the new coalition is successful in rebuilding Berlin's economy and if the PDS can demonstrate it really has separated from its past.