Yearning for the Right to Travel. EAST GERMANY: HOLDING THE LID ON EMIGRATION
WEIMAR, EAST GERMANY
MARKO, a thin, taut, train conductor in his 20s, once tried to get a passport to go to West Berlin. The authorities refused him without explanation. ``You're from France, from Paris?'' He sighs and buries his face in his hands. ``I'll never see the Champs 'Elys'ees.''
In East Germany, travel is often the first topic to come up in conversation. The ability to leave one's country remains a test of the openness of a regime, and new policies are giving hope to millions of other travel-starved East Europeans, particularly Hungarians and Poles, who now enjoy the right to Western-style passports. But East Germans still feel confined to their country.
Visits to the Western, capitalist part of Germany are blocked by the infamous Berlin Wall. Onerous currency restrictions meanwhile limit trips to other East-bloc countries. Neighboring Czechoslovakia is the only foreign land East Germans may visit without a visa, and under regulations revised early this year, only $15 worth of East German marks may be exchanged daily for Czechoslovak crowns.
``We all are prisoners of the East German state,'' complains Baerbel Bohley, a leader of the Independent Peace Initiative. ``There is a great wall around this country.''
Admittedly, in recent years the wall has become more permeable. Responding to internal pressure - and external West German pressure - East Berlin's rulers began in 1987 to let large numbers of citizens below retirement age visit relatives in the West. Officials say 2.8 million visits were made last year by East German citizens to West Germany, along with 3.9 million visits to West Berlin.
New travel regulations were released in December which provide the right of appeal if travel or emigration requests are refused. Previously, police simply refused applications without explanation.
``It's positive that more people now are traveling,'' one Western diplomat says, ``and it's hopeful that they have the right to hear the reasons why they are refused.''
BUT the new regulations are riddled with shortcomings. Because the millions of visits include multiple shopping trips by pensioners to West Berlin, the actual number of East Germans traveling to the West remains low. No one under 18 is even allowed to apply to travel.
Far from being considered a right, as the recent Vienna agreement on human rights stipulates, travel remains a privilege, awarded at will. Visits to the West are allowed only for ``urgent family matters,'' weddings, birthdays, or funerals of relatives. Young applicants say they are usually refused permission.
``The East Germans have been careful to retain the right to refuse travel which they deem detrimental to the state,'' the diplomat says. ``That means doctors have little chance to leave, because their emigration would put the health service in danger.''
Concern over emigration was the key reason for the construction of the Berlin Wall back in 1961. Before then, hundreds of thousands of East Germans escaped by taking the subway or tram to West Berlin.
The number of would-be emigrants remains a state secret. The regime has permitted more people to leave recently, 10,000 in 1987 and 30,000 in 1988. But a report by the human rights group Amnesty International released this year cites numerous cases of people being imprisoned after they applied to emigrate.
``Travel and emigration,'' says one Amnesty official, ``are the No. 1 human-rights problem in East Germany.''
Although less than 1 percent of those now permitted to visit the West remain away from home, the East German regime apparently does not yet feel secure enough to take down the wall. When former Secretary of State George Shultz called for the end of Berlin's division, East German leader Erich Honecker responded, ``It will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years if the reasons for its being built have not been removed.''
In interviews, East German officials stressed that the new travel regulations will not translate into a wave of additional trips. ``We are just codifying our previous informal policy,'' one official said.
This talk leaves Marko pessimistic. ``I don't want to leave my home for good, I just want to see the world,'' he says. ``You would have thought Gorbachev would change this situation - but no.''
Last in a three-part series on East Germany.