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Kohl, Europe's Pivot, Wobbles

German leader seeks Continental unity, but close ties to Yeltsin hamper progress

GERMAN Chancellor Helmut Kohl's critics say his foreign-policy style has a major flaw that could have serious consequences for the West.

As Germany straddles the relatively prosperous West and the formerly communist East, Chancellor Kohl seems well-suited to be the West's point man in the effort to stabilize Central Europe. And so far he has embraced the job with gusto. Germany, for example, insisted on inviting Central European leaders to the European Union summit last December in an effort to promote Continental unity.

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But critics argue that Kohl relies too heavily on personality when determining policy. In Russia's case, that means Kohl places too much emphasis on Russian President Boris Yeltsin, with whom he is close friends. These warm feelings, critics warn, could cloud the chancellor's judgment when considering his options for Central European policy.

They point specifically to Germany's ``soft'' response to Russia's invasion of Chechnya, saying the lack of a strong condemnation of human rights violations in Grozny, capital of the breakaway republic, creates concern in Prague, Warsaw, and Budapest that the West isn't serious about promoting Central Europe's security.

``Certainly it's always valuable to have good statesman-to-statesman relations,'' says Rudolf Scharping, leader of the opposition Social Democrats and Kohl's main political antagonist.

``But ... one should place more importance on institutions, rather than individuals,'' he adds.

A Central European stabilization strategy now pushed by the United States centers on NATO expansion into eastern countries. But at present, expansion would seem to require reconciling irreconcilable positions: Western governments see it as inevitable, while Russia is adamantly opposed. It says having the defense alliance brush its borders would threaten its security.

After meeting President Clinton in Washington in early February, Kohl wholeheartedly endorsed the United States strategy.

``The question of stability [in Central and Eastern Europe] is more urgent than ever before,'' said Kohl, adding that it was essential to avoid ``misunderstandings'' with Russia on NATO expansion.

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THE chancellor has been too fawning in his dealings with the capricious President Yeltsin, critics say. And in trying to avoid rankling Moscow, he is keeping himself from stabilizing Central Europe.

``Mistrust has been stirred in Central Europe about the seriousness of our warnings about the need to adhere to human rights,'' says Mr. Scharping, the opposition leader.

Czech President Vaclav Havel, in an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, revealed Central Europe's chief fear by raising the specter of a ``new Yalta,'' a reference to the World War II agreement that divided Europe into Western and Soviet spheres.

Mr. Havel also said the West was showing ``insufficient courage to develop new solutions'' to Central Europe's security question. But the United States last week decided to offer Poland F-16 fighter jets to bring uniformity to Eastern and Western militaries.

Kohl and German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel bristle at criticism of their response to the Chechnya crisis.

Mr. Kinkel insists Germany has made Bonn's concerns ``clear'' to Moscow. Kohl, meanwhile, emphasizes that Yeltsin is a ``man upon whom one can rely.''

But the assumption that Yeltsin can be relied upon, and is in control, is faulty, insists Russian human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalyov.

During a recent visit to Bonn, Mr. Kovalyov described Moscow as currently caught up in a cycle of ``lies and violence'' that have taken on a life of its own.

``To look for a grand plan of the Russian government is as hopeless as it was to look for one during the last decades of the Soviet regime,'' Kovalyov said.

Kovalyov indicated that Russia's experiment with democracy is all but over, saying that the world should brace for one of two likely scenarios: an authoritarian takeover in Russia or total chaos.

``You're too polite with us,' he said. ``The West should better learn how to evaluate the importance of this [Chechnya].'' He added that an unstable Russia would pose a global nuclear threat.

Despite Kovalyov's warning, few political observers in Germany expect a shift in government policy toward Russia anytime soon. Kohl demonstrated his intransigence by refusing to meet Kovalyov in Bonn.

Calling the decision to shun Kovalyov ``wrong,'' Ulrich Lueke, a political analyst for the General Anzeiger daily, wrote: ``The decision will not get any better because we all know how Kohl will react: In times of pressure, Kohl becomes obstinate.''

Another political analyst, Wolfgang Koydl of the Suddeutsche Zeitung daily, describes Kohl's policy the ``epitome of Realpolitik,'' in which Western leaders merely pay ``lip service'' to democracy and human rights.

Kovalyov cautioned that realpolitik, more often than not, ultimately exacerbates, rather than eases tension. An extreme example of the destructive potential of Realpolitik was World War I.

``There can be no security without human rights,'' Kovalyov said.

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