Lafontaine milks ethnic German debate for votes

The inalienable right of Eastern Europe's German diaspora to migrate to the Fatherland has come under attack from leading opposition politicians, sparking a furious, almost racist row.

As an estimated 700,000 eligible applicants await their turn "with suitcases packed" to join the annual flow of 220,000 Volga Germans from Russia, the government in Bonn, egged on by the opposition Social Democrats, is preparing to stem the tide. Germany says it can no longer afford the Aussiedler - "settlers" - a term used for people of German ancestry who are guaranteed citizenship and the right of residence under the country's constitution.

Though the government has been secretly working on a plan to cut the annual quota, the issue was unexpectedly lobbed into the political arena last weekend by Oskar Lafontaine, the leader of the Social Democrats. "We have taken in 3.5 million immigrants," he said. "In the last few years we have taken in 1 million extra people of working age, and they are walking straight into unemployment - into unemployment benefit or to draw a pension or to get welfare support."

This year 3.3bn marks (pounds 1.5m) of public money is earmarked to help the Aussiedler to integrate into society, and another DM11bn will be paid out in pensions to Germans who were not born in Germany. At a time of rising unemployment and stagnating economy, this is fuelling resentment among voters, a sentiment Mr Lafontaine, with an eye on forthcoming regional elections, is now trying to tap.

But his remark, formalised on Tuesday by a Bundestag motion which called for the right of return to be restricted to those who already have relatives in Germany, has degenerated into a debate about ethnicity. Initially denouncing Mr Lafontaine for "populist demagoguery", the government was nevertheless quick to concede that many of the Aussiedler now arriving were not really German at all.

Radio talk-shows are overheating as the nation argues for the first time in 50 years over what constitutes an ethnic German. Callers cite anecdotal evidence of alarming crime rates in Aussiedler neighbourhoods, of purported Germans speaking in strange tongues, and of a deplorable work ethic.

Opinion polls show the Aussiedler are not much more popular than Bosnian refugees. According to a survey in the weekly Die Woche this week, 70 per cent agree with Mr Lafontaine's proposal to limit their number.

Those who match expectations of cultural identity may nevertheless bring in spouses from the steppes of Central Asia, where the Volga Germans were dispersed by Stalin after Hitler's invasion in 1941. Even if their families do not find integration hard, their new neighbours in Germany often do.

This is the racist undercurrent Mr Lafontaine stirred up. Critics say the issue was conjured up for the elections in the southern Land of Baden- Wurttemberg, the third most popular Aussiedler destination last year. The state also has 10 per cent of the vote up for grabs, captured by the now-defunct extreme right Republicans five years ago. These are the votes Mr Lafontaine is now hoping to win.