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Man Who Ruled Germany 16 Years Bows Out With Acclaim

Kohl exits Oct. 27, having overseen reunification and EU's single currency.

Germany's outgoing chancellor, Helmut Kohl, is a man who literally and figuratively grew with his office. The politically thick-skinned and jovial politician ignored jokes about his ever-widening girth while managing to transform his image as a political bumbler to that of a dignified elder statesman.

After 16 years at the helm of Europe's economically most powerful country, he is leaving office lauded by many as a great politician who reunified his country and strengthened European unification. Mr. Kohl's successor, Gerhard Schrder, is due to be sworn in tomorrow as head of a new center-left government.

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While foreign countries such as the United States and Poland shower him with awards for diplomatic finesse, however, Germans are debating the checkered record of his domestic legacy. The main point of agreement is that Kohl's political instincts made German reunification possible in an astoundingly short period of time - between the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 and reunification on Oct. 3, 1990.

"The unification process bears the strong imprint of Kohl," according to Peter Loesche, a political science professor at the University of Goettingen. "He made the right decisions at the right time with an incredibly finely tuned feeling of what steps to take when," Professor Loesche adds.

The economic, social, and cultural problems that came with reunification, according to political scientist Franz Walter, would probably have happened whoever was in power. Still, he thinks Kohl could have brought more vision to the reunification process. "Kohl is not an architect, planner, or conceptualist," he says.

Kohl's contribution to the European economic unification process is unquestioned. His unwavering support for a single currency, despite divided public opinion in Germany, helped push through the Maastricht agreement allowing introduction of the euro on Jan 1, 1999.

Another talent was maintaining good bilateral relations with foreign leaders, even those of different political stripes.

Earlier this month, President Clinton said he will award the conservative Kohl with the Medal of Freedom for his political vision, his contributions to peace, and his support of transatlantic relations.

Kohl's close friendship with the French Socialist president Franois Mitterrand is legendary. As long as Mr. Mitterrand lived, the two leaders met every few months, a relationship that helped ease sometimes stormy German-French relations.

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After a rocky start, Kohl also developed excellent relations with Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, as well as with his Russian successor, Boris Yeltsin.

Kohl seemed less interested, however, in backing political and social reforms that could bring Europe closer together. Domestically, unemployment during the Kohl era reached the unprecedented height of 12 percent, a level from which it has dipped only slightly.

The government has had no consistent job creation program. Industrial restructuring, the rollback of social benefits, and the economic troubles of the 1990s have put a record number of people in Germany on social welfare.

"This was the weakness of Kohl," says political scientist Loesche. "He understands little about economic or social policy and he did not sufficiently recognize the necessity for drastic reform."

Right-wing extremism reached a dangerous high during the Kohl administration. In the years after reunification, far right-wing extremists carried out thousands of hate attacks, chiefly on foreigners and political opponents. Even at the peak of the violence, Kohl made few gestures of sympathy toward the victims. Instead, he pushed through a change in the constitution to tighten Germany's generous political asylum laws and reduce the number of foreigners coming into the country.

At the beginning of his term, Kohl made several politically inept moves regarding the German past, such as taking President Ronald Reagan to visit the graves of Nazi SS-troops at the cemetery in Bitburg. He learned from the resulting uproar in the Jewish community and abroad to deal more sensitively with the still volatile German past.

Public opinion ratings were never high for Kohl, a Roman Catholic who grew up in the heartland region of Rhineland Palatinate. But, he represented stability and continuity and the Germans kept voting him back.

Political scientist Walter finds a positive side to Kohl's down-home aura. "No one had to be afraid of the Germans as long as someone like this was leading the country," he says.

Kohl ran his conservative Christian Democratic Party with an iron hand, refusing to groom a successor. As a result, a damaging power struggle has broken out in the party that will probably take years to settle.

And what will Germany's longest-serving chancellor do next? He says he plans to enjoy life as an ordinary member of the German parliament.

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