Saxony's tax hotline stirs Stasi memories

Imre Karacs on a revival of an east German civic tradition - reporting on fellow citizens

THE THREE civil servants manning Dresden's imaginative hotline no longer have the time to answer calls themselves. Their innovation, designed to lighten the workload, has turned against its creators, driving them out of their cozy offices on a frantic paper chase. A month after its opening, the line had to be fully automated.

"You are connected to the special telephone of the Finance Ministry of Saxony," says a warm male voice. "You may leave a message up to four minutes long. Your contribution will be treated confidentially." When the office staff return from their errands, the calls are dutifully logged, transcribed and sorted into various trays for eventual dispatch to the relevant department. There are already enough leads to keep the trio busy for the rest of the year.

A great success for officialdom, it would seem, yet some people grumble. For the Saxon finance ministry's telephone is not specifically aimed at rooting out inefficiency and corruption in the government. What makes it "special" is that here the citizens are invited to lodge complaints against fellow citizens. It is a triumph of modern technology. Gone are the days of the anonymous letter: you can now denounce your neighbour at the touch of a button.

Not everybody has understood this. Some pick up the receiver to carp about street- lighting, broken pavements and unemptied dustbins. These are in the minority, however. Most people remember the old days, when Dresden lay in East Germany and it was an honour to keep the authorities informed about sinister goings- on in the neighbourhood. Dial S for Stasi, or, before that, G for Gestapo.

Times have changed, though. Going to the church or talking to the dog in English no longer invites official suspicion, but ripping off the Revenue is now tantamount to high treason. So what does an angry Dresdener do when he finds himself short-changed by the cab-driver? He dials the "special" number to complain about the taxi company. No, not the service. The firm, the caller rattles off in his allotted four minutes, employs more drivers than it has claimed on its books. By implication, it makes more money than it has declared, and pays less tax than it ought to. The ministry's G-men are on this case now - one of the reasons why they have no time to chat on the phone.

Case Two: Somebody is fed up with the asylum-seekers' home next door. Maybe he has tried to report the residents to the police - these asylum- seekers are always trouble - and found no satisfaction. So he calls the number, detailing financial improprieties among the staff... The ministry's hounds will be arriving any day now to turn the place upside down.

With unemployment running at nearly 20 per cent, nothing annoys a Saxon more than moonlighting. The majority of those complaints that fall within the finance ministry's remit concern untaxed work. Vigilant citizens stand behind the curtains, fingers poised, timing the neighbours' comings and goings. A person who is on the dole but leaves home curiously early every day will soon be in deep water.

They stand guard at the building sites, counting the foreign-looking chaps on the scaffolding, and file their reports. They want to take credit for their work: only a quarter of callers are anonymous. The ministry checks, double checks, opens and closes dossiers. Innocent or guilty, the suspects are sure to go through hell in the coming months.

The ministry feels very proud of the project, even though it has yet to substantiate a single claim. The line has only been in existence since the beginning of April, it notes, and any investigation is likely to take a while.

But controversy is raging, as victims of past denunciations protest. Patiently, officials explain that the three detectives feeding on the Dresden tapes are originally from western Germany. No, they never worked for the Stasi, the East German secret police. "That might only slow them down," opponents retort with glee. Despite appearances, the Stasi slur is quite inappropriate, as there is no Communist influence in the regional government. Saxony's Prime Minister is Kurt Biedenkopf, a Christian Democrat from the west, banished to the wilderness after a foolish challenge against Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Mr Biedenkopf has no truck with the old guard, unlike some other leading politicians in the east, and his administration is genuinely bemused by charges that the new service has revived a particularly nasty civic tradition of East Germany. "This special line has nothing to do with denunciation," says Vera Kretschmer, spokeswoman of the Saxon finance ministry. "Nor are we the first. The Defence Ministry in Bonn has something similar - for reporting extreme right-wing activities in the army - and I think the EU runs a hot-line for reporting fraud."

To Ossis that seems like a typical example of Wessi insensitivity to local history. No one appreciates that better than the former ruling party, now called the Party of Democratic Socialism, which counts prominent ex- Stasi officers among its members. The PDS has condemned the hotline, because it "panders to pettiness and the basest instincts of people".

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