EAST BERLIN — In an attempt to cope with East Germany's rapidly deteriorating economic situation, Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere fired two key Cabinet ministers Wednesday and accepted the resignation of two others.
The dismissals were the first for East Germany's new democratically elected government, and seemed certain to increase tension in the broad, four-party coalition charged with the task of uniting East Germany with West Germany.
De Maiziere announced at a press conference that he had dismissed Finance Minister Walter Romberg and Agricultural Minister Peter Pollack for failing to deal effectively with the problems involved in restructuring East Germany's centrally planned industrial and agricultural sectors and preparing them for free-market competition under monetary union with the West, which was agreed to in July.
Economics Minister Gerhard Pohl, heavily criticized for his role in failing to deal adequately with the declining economy, and Justice Minister Kurt Wuensche also left the Cabinet.
De Maiziere said none of the four would be replaced, that their portfolios will be administered by subordinates.
For Pollack, a 59-year-old independent widely regarded as inept and insensitive, it was an especially bad day. Hours before he was fired, he was shouted down and pelted with eggs and vegetables as he tried to address a demonstration of angry farmers in the Alexanderplatz protesting against falling prices and shrinking markets.
One farmer who confronted Pollack as he tried to leave burst into tears of frustration and rage at the apparent lack of understanding for the plight of the farmers.
De Maiziere's move marked the latest in a series of crises that have plagued his government as it staggers toward political unification with West Germany, probably in October.
Serious differences over the timing of political unity, motivated mainly by party infighting rather than national interest, slowed government business to a crawl for nearly two weeks last month and threatened to destroy the coalition led by De Maiziere's Christian Democrats.
Because Romberg was one of the more senior Social Democratic members of De Maiziere's Cabinet, the dismissals seem certain to add new strains to government unity.
The Social Democratic party chairman, Wolfgang Thierse, accused De Maiziere of trying to wreck the coalition. He hinted that the dismissals could jeopardize a treaty on political unity being negotiated by the two Germanys.
"I question whether Lothar de Maiziere still wants the coalition," Thierse said in a televised interview. "Apparently he doesn't, and apparently he doesn't want a unity treaty either, because for that he needs us."
The treaty deals with questions of finance in addition to such politically touchy subjects as property rights and education and cultural policy.
Although the support of the Social Democrats is needed to approve the treaty, observers questioned whether the party would have the will to withstand the public pressure for swift unity.
With political union now expected around the time of East German elections, scheduled for Oct. 14, a collapse of the coalition would further damage the government's image, though it would not be likely to have any long-term significance, observers predicted.
The unity process calls for East Germany to accede to West Germany, a step that will effectively put an end to the East German government. Elections for the first all-German Parliament since the Nazi era are scheduled for Dec. 2.
Although the Cabinet dismissals are likely to put additional strain on the troubled coalition, political observers and many East Germans believe that they were necessary if the economic tailspin is to be halted.
Figures made public Tuesday by the West German Bundesbank show that the East German economy declined by 9.5% in the second quarter of the year, and that the number of people employed in agriculture and industry declined by an additional 7%.
A sharp turndown in the East German economy has been widely predicted as the country's over-manned, antiquated industry and agriculture adjusts to the pressures of the free market. Economists believe that West German technical and financial aid will eventually generate a strong recovery.
According to West German government sources, Romberg had consistently resisted pressure to reduce the bloated government payroll and had demanded subsidies of up to $60 billion for the five states that are to be formed in East Germany.
These sources said West Germany has offered about half that figure. They said that Romberg, while seeking additional funds, had failed to distribute money already allocated to cushion the transition.
Pollack had departed on vacation without submitting a plan to ease the country's deepening agricultural crisis, which has seen farm income drop by about 50% this year.
Some agricultural economists have predicted that as much as 75% of East German agriculture could collapse if employment is not sharply reduced, efficiency boosted, and product quality improved.
Wuensche's departure was said to be unrelated to the economic crisis. A Liberal Democrat who served as justice minister under former Communist leader Walter Ulbricht, he has long been a controversial figure.
De Maiziere's government suffered another setback Wednesday when Martin Kirchner, general secretary of the Christian Democratic Party, was suspended from office pending investigation of charges that he informed for the East German secret police over a period of 15 years.
The accusation appeared in the West German weekly Stern.