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German Foreign Minister Genscher Resigns After 18 Years

By Marc Fisher
The Washington Post

Berlin

German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher announced Monday that he will step down next month after an 18-year tenure in which he helped design German and European unity and catapulted his small moderate party into a pivotal role in his country's politics.

The Western world's longest serving foreign minister, Genscher, 65, is by far the most popular politician in Germany and one of the last of its current leaders to have seen military duty in World War II. Although he has suffered for years from heart problems, Genscher did not cite his health as he made the surprise announcement in Bonn. Rather, he said only that "after such a long time in office, I think the time has come to give up the office ... voluntarily."

Aides said that Genscher decided in January to leave on his 18th anniversary in office -- May 17 -- because, having ushered Germany through its historic reunification, it was best to depart on a high note. They said Genscher also wanted to avoid being dragged into the years of economic, political, and social wrangling the country now faces as it struggles to absorb the ex-communist east and redefine its role in the new Europe.

Several hours after their leader resigned, Genscher's Free Democratic Party -- the junior partner in Chancellor Helmut Kohl's ruling coalition -- announced that it will nominate Construction Minister Irmgard Schwaetzer as his successor. A former Genscher aide, Schwaetzer, 50, is almost certain to be confirmed, making her the highest-ranking woman politician in German history. A chemist by training and a longtime party official, she has broken with the ruling conservative coalition by supporting a more liberal abortion law.

Genscher's departure, which he said he has been considering since early last year, will leave a gaping hole in his party's domestic profile. The Free Democrats, who usually garner little more than 10 percent of the national vote, have been able to parlay support from Germany's intellectual and business communities to become a political fulcrum that determines which of the country's two largest parties will rule.

Although Genscher reportedly informed Kohl of his intention to quit in January, he apparently witheld his announcement until after it was clear that Kohl protege Volker Ruehe -- who had openly criticized Genscher and lobbied for his job -- was out of the picture. Ruehe was named defense minister last month.

Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Monday that he regrets Genscher's departure and he praised him for his role in promoting human rights and bringing about German unity. But Genscher, who was one of the first Western leaders to argue that Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was a harbinger of epochal change, has never been a favorite in Washington. The past two administrations have considered him a lukewarm friend, a Europeanist lacking the emotional ties to the United States that characterized many German politicians of his generation.

By departing now, Genscher leaves unanswered the basic foreign policy questions stemming from German reunification. What role will the country play in the new power relationships developing within Europe and between Europe and the United States? And what balance will Germany find between the enormous needs of internal unification and the pressing demands for German assistance from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe?

The Germany Genscher leaves behind has emerged from the euphoria of reunification as a country weighted down by burdens. Despite frequent German pleas for help from its partners in the Western alliance, Genscher and Kohl still believe that Bonn has been left largely in the lurch on aid to the former East Bloc.

The European integration agreement reached at Maastricht last fall -- one of Genscher's proudest achievements -- appears to be in danger of unraveling as the German public realizes that European unity will mean abandonment of the country's rock of monetary stability, the mark.

The economic drain brought on by the need for massive reconstruction of Genscher's native eastern Germany -- along with the unexpectedly deep social and psychological gap between the prosperous west and the economically backward east -- have sapped energy and attention from foreign affairs.

And the instability and angst prompted by rising inflation and a growing influx of foreign migrants have unsettled Bonn's political scene, making Genscher's traditional way of doing business -- quiet, behind-the-scenes politics, apart from the public fray -- seem quaint and old-fashioned.

Kohl, whose relations with his longtime foreign minister were often icy, offered high praise today for his colleague's energy and dedication. "The man has been in office 23 years, around the clock, you can really say," Kohl said. Genscher, who served five years as interior minister before taking on the foreign affairs post, did not return the favor. Kohl was not mentioned in the resignation statement.