Can Krenz Deliver Real Reform?


LITTLE in Egon Krenz's past suggests that this new leader of East Germany will initiate serious reform. Yet that is what the country is demanding. Frustrated East Germans are weary of talk and rhetoric. Increasingly fearless, tens of thousands are protesting in the streets, demanding substantive change and basic freedoms.

Division within the Communist Party itself is growing. According to Western press reports, thousands of people are withdrawing from it. Critics who are middle-level functionaries are coming out of the closet.

East Germany ``doesn't have much more time'' to signal serious change, said Rudolf Seiters on Wednesday, shortly after the 77-year-old Erich Honecker was relieved of his posts as party boss and head of state. Mr. Seiters is minister of the Chancellor's Office in Bonn, which directs policy toward East Germany (the German Democratic Republic or GDR).

As a man with a huge task at hand, Mr. Krenz has several counts against him, which add up to a credibility problem:

He has been groomed for the post by Mr. Honecker, East Germany's leader for 18 years. Like Honecker, Krenz was a party ladder-climber.

Most recently, Krenz was head of internal security - the ``bad guys'' in the eyes of the people.

He staunchly defended China's crackdown in Tiananmen Square as needed to restore order.

He also oversaw last spring's elections. And ever since then, East Germans have been demonstrating monthly, accusing the government of fraud.

Neither the Protestant Church nor opposition leaders in the GDR are enthusiastic over Krenz. ``No one believes him,'' said B"arbel Bohley, a leader of the largest opposition group, New Forum.

On the other hand, there are a few positive points that lead some observers in the West to take a ``wait and see'' attitude.

Krenz's age is one of them. Though he acts like the Old Guard hard-liners who make up the majority of the Politburo, he is only 52. In the view of one official in Bonn who asked not to be named, Krenz appears to grasp the fact ``that the old way of governing won't work anymore.''

Also, he reportedly ordered police restraint in huge demonstrations in Leipzig this week and last, although police brutality was evident in other demonstrations.

Krenz's hour-long televised address Wednesday night was not a strong, unequivocal push for change. He said the party would pursue its policy of ``continuity and renewal'' and emphasized the party's leading role.

But he admitted that authorities had not reacted fast enough to discontent and said that the country was at a ``turning point.''

He hinted broadly of travel reform. The East Germans allowed to visit West Germany are either retirees or people visiting relatives for important family events. Because of the hard-currency shortage, they rely on the financial generosity of their hosts.

``If the East Germans really lift travel restrictions, this will put a moral pressure on us to help finance these visits,'' says the Bonn official. The reward, however, would be great. ``It would mean that the wall would be obsolete.''

The fact that two Politburo members, G"unter Mittag and Joachim Herrmann, were also pushed out Wednesday is taken as a sign of coming change in their areas of responsibility: the economy and the media.

Traces of glasnost (openness) have started to appear in the media. But modernizing industry and producing more consumer goods can only be done through a market economy, Western analysts say, and East Berlin won't hear of this.

And herein lies the challenge for Krenz: trying to reform, without causing the demise of the Communist Party.

Poland has shown that it's impossible to give people just a little bit of democracy, says Marcel Bulla, a political analyst at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is affiliated with the ruling conservative party in Bonn. ``I'm sure the GDR leadership is eyeing the Poland example,'' he says.

In the long run, this strategy probably won't work. Which is why Krenz is already being viewed by many in the West as a ``transition'' leader.

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