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Genscher Exit Signals End of Era

Longtime German foreign minister first to urge a Europe including the East

NO one in German politics crows as much about his own accomplishments as Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. But then again, no one in German politics - or the world, for that matter - has been foreign minister for as long as he has.

At press conferences, Mr. Genscher never misses an opportunity to remind reporters that a new action in world politics is a result of his personal initiative. On humbler days, he calls it "a German initiative."

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In fact, Genscher's 18-year record as foreign minister is impressive. The announcement of his resignation plans on April 27 sent shock waves throughout Germany. "The end of an era," was how the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung described the departure of the country's most popular politician.

"Genscher is the man who literally revived, almost invented, the concept of Europe," says a Western diplomat in Bonn. A decade ago, "when the European Community was bogged down in issues like the size of mesh in fishing nets," Genscher was talking about a new European identity, the diplomat said.

Most of Genscher's career was spent in a difficult balancing act between Germany's NATO allies and the Warsaw Pact. He was the first senior Western politician to publicly support Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. Had he not had good relations with Mr. Gorbachev early on, it would have been more difficult for Genscher to negotiate German reunification - the high point of his career.

"Genscher had vision. He saw the overcoming of the division of Europe much earlier than others," says Werner Hoyer, a party colleague of Genscher's in the German Bundestag and a specialist on foreign and security affairs.

Of course, adds Mr. Hoyer, Genscher's vision often "led to great irritations" with his Western allies. The United States and Britain especially suspected in Genscher a pied piper luring his fellow Germans out of the Western camp. They viewed his overtures to Gorbachev as premature.

Genscher's refusal in 1989 to allow NATO updating of short-range nuclear weapons set off a political ruckus. Not only were Germany's NATO allies upset, but so was German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who is perceived to be more of an Atlanticist than Genscher.

It is the sea-change in world politics that leads some Germans to say that now is the time for a change at the Foreign Office. "It's time for a new beginning," says Karsten Voigt, a foreign policy expert in the Bundestag for the opposition Social Democrats.

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Born in east Germany, Genscher is a man shaped by the East-West conflict. As long as the familiar landmarks of bloc-politics remained the same, he could steer toward his goals of a united Germany and a united Europe.

But after the landmarks began to disappear, and the Soviet Union sunk into chaos, Genscher became rudderless, says Mr. Voigt. "He believed for too long that the Soviet Union would stay together," Voigt says. Unprecedented cases like the Gulf war and the Yugoslav crisis also found Genscher out of his element.

Fundamental issues lie ahead for Genscher's designated successor, Irmgard Schwaetzer. The reunited Germany has not yet found its role in the post-cold-war era, sometimes ducking responsibility and sometimes seizing it. The road to west European unification was mapped out at Maastricht, but it is proving to be a difficult route to follow. The question remains how to integrate East and West Europe.

Ms. Schwaetzer is not expected to depart from Genscher's vision of a united Europe. She is a Genscher understudy, and served under him as state minister for European affairs from 1987-91. Since then, she has gained leadership experience as Minister of Regional Planning, Building, and Urban Development - a very politically sensitive ministry given the abominable state of housing in east Germany and the severe housing shortage nationwide.

But the German press is already selling Schwaetzer short, calling her a "weak" candidate. The first woman foreign minister in Germany's history, her choice had nothing to do with gender politics or even that much with qualifications.

Schwaetzer was nominated for the job by the Free Democratic Party, the party which has traditionally filled the foreign minister post, partly because she was the only candidate left. The two other candidates, Justice Minister Klaus Kinkel and Economics Minister Jurgen Mollemann, both want to run for the leadership of the party. Under FDP rules it is not possible to be both leader of the party and foreign minister.

The assumption in political circles here is that Chancellor Kohl will now exert more influence on foreign policy because his sometimes rival, a very assertive Genscher, is out of the way and his successor is still unproven. Some politicians are even speculating that Schwaetzer is simply a transition figure and won't last past the next federal election in 1994.

But FDP Bundestag member Hoyer says Schwaetzer is "without doubt qualified" and has 18 months still to prove herself. She's a "fighter" he says, and will not give up easily.

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