Germany's Chancellor Kohl Faces Political Crisis of `Believability'

Cabinet resignations, strike wave, along with spiraling costs of reunification add to concerns that the government is losing control

GERMAN Chancellor Helmut Kohl escaped the shocks of a historic earthquake in the Bonn region while he was on Easter vacation, but in his first week back from a spring vacation, he has political earthquakes to deal with.

Yesterday, his long-standing foreign minister of 18 years, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, announced his resignation for May 17. Mr. Genscher is easily Germany's most popular politician and made his mark in 1990 by negotiating German reunification with the four allied powers of World War II. His probable successor is Irmgard Schwaetzer, who now heads the Ministry for Regional Planning, Building, and Urban Development and is a Genscher prote.

Monday was also the day when a massive public strike in western Germany began to take hold, shutting down subway and bus service in major cities, and delaying the normally punctual German trains, and causing mail pileups in many post offices.

Strikes are a rarity in this smoothly functioning country and this was the first strike among public workers in 18 years. The strike is over wage increases, which the government is trying to curtail because of the staggering costs of unification.

"Kohl's got a full plate," says a Western diplomat in Bonn.

Germans are worried that their economic miracle is turning into a catastrophe. Unification costs are soaring. Refugees are surging into Germany, threatening job and housing supplies. Unemployment remains a stubborn problem in east Germany. And now Genscher is leaving just when the country is trying to redefine its role in a changed world.

Mr. Kohl has expected Genscher's departure since early this year and may actually be privately pleased that his longtime rival in the Foreign Office is stepping down. The two often clashed. As Genscher admitted in his resignation letter to Kohl yesterday, "these years were naturally not without problems between us."

But personal preferences aside, Genscher's departure "has enormous implications for German foreign policy," says the Western diplomat.

* Many people consider the timing of Genscher's announcement to be right. His health is not the best, and his main political mission, unification, has been accomplished. New frontiers ahead require fresh thought and energy. Unprecedented challenges like the Gulf war and the Yugoslav crisis found Genscher out of his element, his critics say.

* On the other hand, Genscher has vision and experience which will be hard to replace. Above all, he is a true believer in the "united Europe," a concept which needs strong advocates if it is to take wing and fly. (Slackening momentum for European unity, Page 4.)

Genscher's Free Democratic Party (FDP), the junior partner in Kohl's center-right coalition, says it has no intention of giving up the Foreign Minister post, and yesterday chose Ms. Schwaetzer as the successor candidate."

Although rumors within the FDP suggest that Genscher has his eye on the presidency of the European Commission, the foreign minister said yesterday that he wants to remain a member of the German Bundestag, or parliament, and devote himself to the challenge of reunification.

This challenge is turning out to be "the most difficult situation" in the history of the Federal Republic, says an FDP member who asked not to be named.

With strikes, Cabinet resignations (Health Minister Gerda Hasselfeldt also resigned yesterday), and a sense that the government has lost control of unification costs, the government is faced with "a problem of believability" among Germans, he said.

The latest public opinion poll, taken by the Emnid Institute and published in Der Spiegel magazine, confirms that the voter dissatisfaction, also expressed in regional elections April 5, is widespread.

Were national elections to be held now, according to the poll, Kohl and his coalition partners would lose their majority in the parliament and be out of power.

Right-wing radicals, meanwhile, would have enough votes, at 7 percent, to enter parliament.

At a press conference yesterday, Kohl said that he has 18 months ahead without any elections. He will use this time, he said, to work with the opposition Social Democrats on such key issues as asylum policy, finances, and European unity.

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