German Presence in Czechoslovakia Sparks Concern Over Dominance

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visits Prague this week, he must tread lightly. He comes bringing a good-neighbor treaty, but even so, the Czechoslovakians have very ambivalent feelings about reunited Germany.

On the one hand, they welcome the recent flood of German investment as a source of jobs and a guarantee of quality manufacturing. On the other hand, they worry about the "Germanization" of the Czechoslovak economy.

German companies account for a third of the joint ventures here, and a remarkable 80 percent of pledged foreign investment is from Germans. A senior government official in Prague said he is convinced Germany has a coordinated plan to economically dominate his country.

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Politically, the Czechoslovakians have appreciated the Germans "putting in a word" for Prague in the European Community, says Egon Lansky, spokesman for Czechoslovak Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier. Bonn supports EC membership for the Central European states, and it helped negotiate associate membership for Czechoslovakia in the EC, Mr. Lansky says.

"Of course," Lansky adds, "when you make political or economic deliberations, you need the help of a powerful neighbor."

Germany, he says, is Europe's most powerful nation, and its might - both economic and political - is increasing. However, the flip side to having an influential ally, adds Lansky, is that "you are a little bit scared by his power." Considering Czechoslovak-German history, he says, "this is a natural attitude."

History was the biggest stumbling block in negotiating the German-Czechoslovak friendship treaty, which Chancellor Kohl and President Vaclav Havel will sign Feb. 27.

Sudeten Germans, whose families lived on the perimeter of Czechoslovakia but were expelled from the region at the end of World War II, exerted tremendous pressure on Bonn, demanding that the treaty guarantee their claims to lost property in Czechoslovakia.

Left-wing Czechoslovakians, meanwhile, insisted that the treaty address war reparations stemming from the German occupation, as well as certain wording in the treaty.

"There is a good deal of resentment" in Czechoslovakia regarding the German past, Lansky says. "These feelings may be impossible to overcome."

In the end, negotiators chose to omit war-related claims from either side. "We believe that digging into the past and into all those horrible things that our forefathers have done to one another is not of much help for the present or for the future," Lansky explains.

If the present trend continues, much of Czechoslovakia's economic future will be influenced by the Germans. Germany is the No. 1 importer of Czechoslovak goods and last year was the No. 2 exporter to this country (after the former Soviet Union). It has more invested here than any other foreign country.

The Czechoslovak Secret Service, in a letter to President Havel, reportedly warned that Germany is engaged in a massive economic offensive in the Czech region of Bohemia, with the ultimate aim of economic and political hegemony. The Czech Interior Ministry called the report unfounded.

Claudia Heinzmann, of the Office of German Economy in Prague, says German economic activity here is being "completely wrongly interpreted."

There is no master plan, says Ms. Heinzmann, obviously embarrassed by the subject. The Germans are here for "natural" reasons: Czechoslovakia has a skilled, inexpensive labor force just over the border from Germany, she explains, adding that Germany has a long tradition of doing business here.

Still, no one denies the Germans have ambitions here. Shirley Temple Black, the United States ambassador in Prague, called the Germans "very aggressive," but then added, "so are we." By the end of last year, nearly 300 US companies were active here.

Ambassador Black called the competition "fierce."

For all their reservations about the Germans, however, Czechoslovakians seem willing enough, sometimes even eager, to hitch their wagon to Europe's economic star.

Czechoslovakians are "admirers of German precision, order, and quality," says Jan Mladek, deputy minister for the Federal Ministry of Economy.

Even though Czechoslovakians are blatantly pro-American and are rushing to learn English, a visitor to Prague still has more success communicating in German.

Last year, a record 36 million tourists came to Czechoslovakia, most of them German, and the business community here wants to seize this opportunity.

Czechoslovakians who take advantage of the German presence here are on the right track, says Foreign Ministry spokesman Lansky.

"Germany is our neighbor, and you can do nothing about family and neighborhood bonds," Lansky says.

"You cannot move one country away from another, and you cannot stop being a brother or sister of somebody," he says. "We have to find a way of turning it into something positive and this is what we hopefully are doing."

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