E. Germans Put Best Communist Forward

New Communist leader with a reputation for integrity takes the helm of party charged with widespread corruption

GREGOR GYSI wants to rip out the foundation of Stalinism in East Germany and build a pluralistic, democratic society. For years a defense attorney for critics of the state, the new Communist leader himself is a pillar of justice. But the young, energetic Mr. Gysi must keep his eye on elections, almost certain to take place on May 6. By that time, many analysts believe East Germans will be asking themselves only one question: Which party will make me economically better off? Justice will be seen as a basic right - not a campaign issue.

Of course, Gysi has no choice but to start at Square 1. He must expose corruption and punish the wrong-doers if he hopes to establish any credibility. It could very well be, however, that even a squeaky-clean leader like Gysi can't bridge the credibility gap between his Socialist Unity Party (the Communist Party or SED) and the public.

``It doesn't matter what they say, the SED is totally out,'' says Wilhelm Bruns, an expert on East Germany at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Bonn. Many East Germans interviewed voiced a similar opinion.

The party may be out, but for the moment, Gysi the man enjoys considerable support. Berliners, at least, remember him from the Nov. 4 demonstration here in which a million people marched for free press and freedom of assembly.

There, over a broadcast system at Alexander Platz, he demanded a new constitution and the cleaning up of the criminal-law code. ``The best state security is the security of people's rights,'' he said to thundering applause. When he openly rejected the first, half-hearted attempt to reform travel law, the government quickly went back and reworked the proposal.

``I like him a lot,'' says Angelika Kramsch, who was visiting an exhibit of demonstration banners and posters the day after Gysi was elected party chief. ``His speeches mirror a lot of what I believe,'' says Ms. Kramsch, who doesn't belong to any party.

A logic hard to argue with characterizes Gysi. Last week, for instance, a noisy crowd of workers gathered outside the building where the round-table talks were beginning. They demanded representation of the workers' union - a Communist organization - at the table. Meanwhile, noncommunist groups, such as a fledgling women's movement, were also demanding representation.

Inside, debate dragged on as to what to do about this. Finally, Gysi, one of three SED representatives at the talks, stood up and simply said: ``An impression of being left out can only hurt the round table.'' Shortly after, the round table voted to bring in two representatives from each group.

It's this fairness that gives people the impression that if anyone can clean up the party, Gysi can. In the past, he has represented critics of the state, such as authors and artists. When New Forum, now the country's largest opposition group, was labeled an ``enemy of the state,'' he fought for their rights.

Before Gysi accepted the position as the new party leader, he was on the 25-member working group formed to prepare for the party congress and to fill the void left by resignations from the Politburo and Central Committee.

There he headed a committee to investigate corruption in the SED. The work gave him a bird's eye view of the extent of the problem the party faces. (He says he also saw the archaic phone system in the SED headquarters collapse as thousands of people tried to call his office with tips after his work number was broadcast over East German television.)

At the party congress, Gysi reported that former leader Erich Honecker ``practically alone'' controlled the party and the state. He said the party leadership lived in ``isolation'' and that there was a ``catastrophic lack of control'' on their power. The law must ``apply to every man - even Politburo members,'' he said. He demanded that the party break with the Stalinist, centrally controlled system that ``led to political and economic crisis, to corruption, and to abuse of office.''

Ironically, Gysi - an intellectual - is leading a party that still wants to identify itself as a party for the workers and farmers. ``There is nothing `worker' about Gysi's background,'' says Mr. Bruns.

With round, wire-rimmed glasses and an exacting sense about him, this short, balding man even looks the intellectual. He is head of the association of East German attorneys. Born in Berlin in 1948, he comes from a Jewish family and is committed to the preservation of Jewish culture in East Germany, although he himself is not a practicing Jew, according to press reports.

His father, Klaus Gysi, still living, was a member of the Communist Party in Germany during World War II and fled to France. He later served East Germany as ambassador to Italy, minister of culture, and undersecretary for the Office of Religion.

At the congress, Gysi tried to outline his vision for the party. He is for a ``third way'' that combines socialism, democracy, communism, environmentalism, and pacifism.

Something can be learned from the government structure of a country such as West Germany, he said, with which he supported close cooperation. But in one breath he rejected the ``power interests of the capitalist monopolies, especially the transnational concerns of the international military-industrial complex.''

A Western diplomat here calls Gysi and his circle of reformers ``enlightened communists'' and doubts whether their idea of ``a third way'' will have broad appeal. People don't want to experiment anymore, he says, they just want freedom and an assured increase in living standards.

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