Dissident aims to speak for east Germans: Steve Crawshaw in Berlin meets Jens Reich, a candidate for president out to shake up the 'complacency' of those in the west

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The Independent Online
'THE CHANCELLOR comes from the west. Twelve constitutional court judges all come from the west. Of the 15 government ministers, the great majority are from the west. All but two of the 16 regional prime ministers are from the west. Our bosses and employers are from the west. It's a question of symbolism: we feel dominated by west Germany.'

Jens Reich, a leading east German dissident during the rebellious autumn of 1989, withdrew from politics shortly after German unity the following year. Now, the quiet, bespectacled intellectual has been persuaded to throw his hat back into the political ring. His name has been put forward as a presidential candidate when Richard von Weizsacker retires next year.

Mr Reich, a molecular biologist, is the candidate of those who are dissatisfied with the complacency of the existing parties. Most importantly, he is the candidate who could give the east a voice in the politics of a united Germany for the first time.

Four years ago, when I first met him - hours before the eruption of the first and biggest opposition demonstration that Berlin had seen in three decades - Mr Reich argued: 'We've been silent for too long. We've tolerated too much for too long.' Now, it is a different kind of muzzling that he worries about. On the one hand, he criticises his fellow east Germans for their 'neurotic fixation' in seeing the 'Wessis', the West Germans, as the source of all evil. 'You can't blame every marriage and career crisis on the west.'

At the same time, however, the soft- spoken Mr Reich - described by the weekly Wochenpost in a front-page editorial as 'a man for the whole (of Germany)' - is sharply critical of the complacency in west Germany, where people have needed to adapt so little, while easterners' lives have been turned upside down. Mr Reich has been working in the German town of Heidelberg in recent months. But he says that he feels almost like a foreigner there. 'The culture is shared. But the difference is very great.

There are lots of little signs that I come from a long way away. You immediately notice it. There's nothing hostile. But I feel a great distance.'

He talks of west Germany as a 'closed affluent society' and says that he sometimes finds it easier to talk to Czech and Polish colleagues than to his fellow Germans from the west. 'We have swum in the same river - and we feel the same problems, now.'

A west German scarcely out of university recently told me that it was unreasonable to expect west Germans to share with the east the wealth that 'we' have created in the past 40 years. His sentiments were not untypical. Mr Reich takes a different approach, using the example of his own family, to explain the bitterness in the east today. 'My father, who is 85, gets DM1,500 ( pounds 600) a month, after working for years as a head doctor in a hospital. His former colleagues, who happened to end up in the west, get DM5,000 - and have lots of savings in the bank. People here feel deceived, by comparison to other Germans.'

The presidency is not an entirely political post. Executive power resides with the federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl (who is also up for re-election, later next year), not with the president. But presidential pronouncements on moral-political issues - President von Weizsacker has spoken out strongly on violence against foreigners, for example - carry weight. The president - who is indirectly elected, by members of the federal and regional parliaments - is seen as embodying the conscience of the nation. He can sometimes be critical of government policy.

Mr Reich acknowledges that his candidature, supported by a number of Germany's leading intellectuals, has only a small chance of succeeding, next May. Instead, one of the main party candidates is likely to win, as usual. Mr Reich argues: 'I see this as a symbolic candidature - as provocative'. Nevertheless, he believes he might still win, if there is deadlock between the parties. Chancellor Kohl, mindful of electoral disillusion in the east, has said that he would like the next president to come from the east, but the Christian Democrats have no obviously appealing candidate from there. Meanwhile, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Free Democrat and former foreign minister, still claims that he does not wish to stand; Theo Waigel, leader of the Christian Democrats' Bavarian sister party, the CSU, has said that a CSU member should now be president, but it is unclear if he will find much support for that idea elsewhere. The Social Democrats want the post to go to their eminence grise, Johannes Rau.

Mr Reich says that if he succeeds in getting his points across, then he will at least have partially succeeded. He complains of the current lack of political vision - what he calls the 'forgetting about the future'. This lack of vision on right and left, he suggests, could seriously damage the health of German society. 'Today, you can't get more applause than by cursing politicians. And that is very dangerous.'

(Photograph omitted)

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