E. Germans Open Door to Refugees
Decision is linked to upcoming anniversary - and to need to demonstrate strong leadership. STREAMING WEST
FOR the second time in three weeks, the floodgates were opened, and East German refugees came pouring into West Germany. But unlike the first case - when Hungary decided to simply open its Western border - this time, East Berlin approved the plan and played a key role in the solution. Analysts here see a number of motives behind East Berlin's decision last Saturday to allow 6,000 of its citizens - mostly young people - in Prague and Warsaw safe passage to West Germany.Skip to next paragraph
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One reason is this week's 40th anniversary of the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) - as East Germany is formally known. Celebrations are planned for Saturday, in which visiting Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev will also take part. East German leaders openly oppose the introduction of Soviet-style reforms in their country.
By allowing the refugees to leave and by publicizing this decision as a ``humanitarian'' one, the GDR leaders may hope to head off heavy criticism during the birthday week, when 400 to 500 reporters will be in East Berlin. Protest groups plan to appeal to the Soviet leader via banners, fliers, and demonstrations. Several East Germans from Dresden called on Mr. Gorbachev in an open letter to support ``the building of a humane, democratic socialism'' in the GDR.
Another reason for the decision was that ``the GDR finally realized it had to do something,'' says Wilhelm Bruns, an expert on the GDR at the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation in Bonn. ``Weakness in decisionmaking, when Erich Honecker wasn't there, is over.''
Mr. Honecker, general secretary of East Germany, has been seriously ill and reportedly underwent a gallbladder operation on Aug. 18 - when the refugee situation in Hungary was coming to a head. He is considered to be personally responsible for German-German policy.
It is unclear, however, how long Mr. Honecker's renewed grip on leadership can hold. Honecker appeared in public last week for the first time in more than five weeks, but according to the West German daily ``Die Welt,'' the 77-year-old leader will undergo another operation as soon as possible after the Oct. 7 celebrations.
Both within and without East Germany, the recent battle cry has been reform. Last weekend Rudolph Seiters, the minister of the chancellor's office in Bonn, emphasized again that reform is the only way to staunch the refugee flow. He adds that West Germany is ready to help with more aid if East Germany begins to move in this direction.
Inside East Germany, a fledgling opposition group, New Forum, is trying to get off the ground - despite its being recently outlawed by the government. Until recently, the only mouthpiece for change was the Protestant church in East Germany.
In the last two weeks, members of four tiny ``block parties'' have echoed the New Forum's call for ``open discussion'' of the GDR's problems. These parties are legal and comprise about 17 percent of total party membership in East Germany. In practice, however, they toe the main SED (Socialist Unity, or communist) party line. Even some key SED members have chimed in, but the Politburo is digging in its heels.
Mr. Bruns says that one contact in Honecker's inner political circle told him that East Berlin is considering reforms that would:
Increase the travel possibilities for East Germans to West Germany.
Allow the small parties which already legally exist in East Germany to represent their constituents instead of having to toe the Communist Party line.
Bring a degree of glasnost (openness) to the news media.
But even if the government actually moved in this direction, it's not certain the public would believe it and thus work with it. ``There is enormous mistrust,'' says one Bonn government official.
The fact that a majority of the refugees in Prague refused to accept the offer of guaranteed passage to West Germany within six months if they returned to East Germany first, shows the degree of mistrust. This was a better offer on the part of the government in East Berlin. In the past, it has only offered to quickly review and process exit applications.
Meanwhile, East Germans continue to stream to the West. Although the GDR insists the weekend release is a ``one-time'' deal, this hasn't stopped more East Germans from seeking refuge in the West German embassies in Prague and Warsaw. There are reportedly more than 300 people in the Prague embassy and about 70 people in Warsaw. New negotiations would have to begin to determine the fate of these people, according to Bonn officials.
Mr. Seiters said over the weekend that West Germany would not turn people out of its embassies. ``We will not put anyone on the street,'' he said.
In Prague, after the 4,000 refugees left the West German embassy, the Czech police stepped up the number of guards outside the embassy. But when a large crowd of East Germans gathered in front of the entrance, the doors were opened and they were welcomed in.
Meanwhile, the flow through Hungary is still about 500 people a day. And even though the waters of the Danube are cold, desperate East Germans in Czechoslovakia are still taking the plunge to reach Hungary.