Germany's Kohl Battles Dismal Approval Ratings

High costs of reunification taint achievements of 10 years in power

AS Helmut Kohl marks 10 years as Germany's chancellor today, he is beset by problems at home and abroad that have cast a shadow on many of his accomplishments.

Even Mr. Kohl's most significant achievement, presiding over the reunification of Germany, risks becoming his undoing.

He has said that German unity and European unity are two sides of the same coin, but however important it is to him to achieve both, the two are to a certain extent at odds with each other.

The strength of the deutsche mark has given other currencies in the European Monetary System a bruising in recent weeks, and this has given other Europeans second thoughts about closer union within the European Community. But that strong mark is the result of German interest rates kept high to check inflation as Germany strives to rebuild its five "new states." The strong mark also is cramping Germany's own export-oriented economy.

The chancellor's approval ratings are dismal: One recent poll found that 64.7 percent of those questioned wanted him replaced as chancellor. Another poll found that 75 percent of those questioned feel his coalition government is doing a poor job.

East Germans are distraught over high unemployment that is still rising; west Germans are tired of hearing how much reunification will cost. And many Germans, east and west, are worried that they will find their national identity swallowed up in some Brussels-based super-state, and are leery of the Maastricht Treaty.

Germany's opposition Social Democrats charge that Kohl's call for a "solidarity pact" among business, unions, and taxpayers to finance reconstruction in the east has not been fleshed out with proposals. The weekly Die Zeit also complained that Kohl has shown konzeptionslosigkeit, the German equivalent of "trouble with `the vision thing.' "

Other events have suggested that eastern reconstruction is not the only area where vision has been lacking:

* Violence against foreigners, which has raged on for weeks, with little government response.

* The suspected arson at the Sachsenhausen memorial near Berlin and the subsequent desecration of a Jewish memorial in Cottbus.

* The space industry association's planned commemoration Saturday of the 50th anniversary of the rocket that led to the notorious V-2, which killed thousands of British civilians during World War II. The affair sparked an international outcry, including protests from German media distressed that it showed Germans insensitive to history. The commemoration is to go on anyway, without government support.

Meanwhile, the road to European unity, a goal on which Kohl has staked so much, is rough as ever. The afterglow from the French approval, however narrow, of the Maastricht Treaty has faded amid contention and rumors of a "two-speed Europe."

The emotional importance Kohl has placed on European unity, and specifically on the Franco-German alliance, would be hard to overestimate. One image etched in memory is that of Kohl and French President Francois Mitterrand at Verdun, standing before a catafalque draped with the German and French flags. Suddenly the two men clasped hands - before the cameras - for a moment of European solidarity that seemed to still centuries of bellicosity between their two nations.

The significance of some of Kohl's earlier international achievements may have faded somewhat. But Ulrich Irmer, the Free Democrats' foreign policy spokesman in the Bundestag, gives Kohl great credit for having adopted "the continuity of foreign policy." Until Kohl became chancellor, the Christian Democrats had opposed the Social Democrats' ostpolitik, or overtures to the East. "He succeeded in forcing his party on this," Mr. Irmer says.

Kohl also made the difficult decision to continue his predecessors' policy of allowing mid-range nuclear weapons on German soil, even as arms-control negotiations continued. This was the so-called NATO "dual track" program, which Kohl has said led ultimately to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall.

The most critical issues on Kohl's plate now have to do with reunification. The event seemed to transform him into a statesman with a place in history on the order of that of Bismarck, and showed him as an instinctive politician who seized the moment rather than considering all the contingencies before acting.

But Kohl is criticized for having muffed the opportunity to draw on the reserve of national cohesiveness and willingness to sacrifice to rebuild eastern Germany. Instead, he promised a relatively painless absorption of the east and, in effect, "no new taxes" for the west, and then had to back down and ask for a temporary tax increase after all.

Karsten Voigt, a member of the Social Democrats' party executive, says that in Germany, "You can get support for taxes, if you argue that the money is to be used for the right reasons.... Even now, there is a willingness to shoulder burdens."

The chancellor may yet avail himself of that willingness. Last week in eastern Germany, he was jeered by hundreds protesting high unemployment. He conceded that things have not gone as well as expected and said he had "profound understanding" for east Germans "who have not seen the light at the end of the tunnel for themselves."

Kohl has shown himself a politician with a shrewd instinct for the people. Political analyst Jochen Thies is counting on the staying power of the often underestimated Kohl. "There is no alternative to Kohl," he says.

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