Ex-communists take posts in Berlin regional authority for first time

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The charismatic post- communist politician Gregor Gysi was named as economy minister in Berlin's regional government yesterday, a decision likened by opponents to "an arsonist becoming fireman".

Mr Gysi's Party of Democratic Socialism will also be in charge of culture and social affairs in the German capital. Five other posts, including finance and justice, will be occupied by the Social Democrats, the dominant partner in the first Berlin coalition to include the PDS since the fall of the Wall.

Berlin, a city of fewer than four million inhabitants, is saddled with debts of more than £25bn. The prospect of a former communist in charge of the economy has raised consternation among business leaders and fuelled fears that the new regime will scare away investors.

The new administration has announced swingeing cuts in public spending, the closure of swimming pools and schools, and large-scale privatisation. Although the PDS is ideologically opposed to such a course, it has agreed to mass lay-offs but it wants to negotiate with unions over the terms.

Nevertheless, the party's return to power 12 years after its spectacular demise is seen in the western half of the city as a gross insult, and breaks a political taboo. Nearly all its members once belonged to the party that built the Berlin Wall and issued orders to shoot people fleeing to the West. A full apology for the crimes perpetrated by the Communist regime is still forthcoming.

Until now politicians have conspired to keep the PDS out of city hall. Reunited Berlin has been run mainly by a "grand coalition" of Christ- ian Democrats and Social Democrats. Their uneasy partnership snapped early last year under the weight of sleaze and bankruptcy.

After September's elections, the Social Democrats again shunned the PDS and tried to form a regional government with the help of the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats. But the three parties were unable to agree on the best way to handle the city's debts of DM78bn (£25bn). The Free Democrats balked at proposed tax increases while the Greens would not sanction cuts in the culture budget.

The PDS was forced to sign a declaration condemning the Wall and the persecution of opponents under the Communist regime as its entry ticket into the new regional government.

Mr Gysi, a former lawyer for dissidents, has repeatedly said that he needed to make no personal apologies, since he was only 13 years old when East Germans were walled in.

But he has been forced to rebut allegations that he informed the Stasi, the East German secret police, on the activities of his clients.