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Architect of Reunification Stirs Rifts

Reflecting divisions over a finance scandal, party will exclude ex-Chancellor Kohl from main celebration of the 1990 event he oversaw.

August 26, 2000|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — As former Chancellor Helmut Kohl fights for a place of honor in German history despite a scandal over illegal political contributions, celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the country's reunification will give him an opportunity to defend his record as a statesman.

But the opportunity is a limited one: He's speaking at only two of the less important events. And he isn't even attending the main national celebration, because its organizer--a state governor from Kohl's own Christian Democratic Union--refused to include him among the speakers.

A struggle within the CDU over how much respect to accord Kohl at events honoring the Oct. 3, 1990, reunification has revealed the deep divisions the former chancellor still inspires, seven months after he resigned as honorary party chairman because of a fund-raising scandal.

Some prominent party officials declared that they would boycott the national ceremony if Kohl weren't invited to speak, but organizer Kurt Biedenkopf--a longtime rival of Kohl within the party--refused to yield ground, and most of the party leadership sided with him in the dispute.

Kohl, who as chancellor played a key role in reunification, then announced that he would decline an invitation to attend the ceremony as a guest. The event marking the political unification of East and West Germany should be a "day of the people," Kohl said in announcing his decision. "Personalities should not take center stage."

Kohl has acknowledged that he accepted more than $1 million in illegal political funds, but he refuses to identify the donors. He has said he gave the party's benefactors his "word of honor" that they would remain anonymous. German law requires disclosure of any gift of more than 20,000 marks, or nearly $9,300.

Partly because of his refusal to identify the benefactors, the CDU continues to be hurt politically by allegations that Kohl sold government favors during his 16 years as chancellor--charges he denies.

The CDU agreed this week to pay a $2-million fine for illegal use of political funds. It also agreed to reimburse $1 million in public campaign funding that it would not have received had it reported the illegal donations made to Kohl.

"If [Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder is lucky, the Kohl case will be an issue until the campaign in 2002," the Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel said in an editorial, referring to the next scheduled parliamentary election.

The uproar within the CDU over whether Kohl should speak at the national celebration in Dresden on Oct. 3 revealed the considerable weight that Kohl still carries in the party despite the disgrace of the financing scandal. To mollify Kohl and his supporters, CDU leaders agreed that the ex-chancellor would speak, along with party chief Angela Merkel, at a 10th anniversary party function Oct. 1 in Berlin.

In effect, Kohl and his backers succeeded in pushing CDU leaders to take at least modest steps toward reconciliation with him. Kohl is also scheduled to speak at a Sept. 27 ceremony being held by the CDU-affiliated Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a less sensitive venue.

Since her April 10 election as party chief, Merkel had sought to isolate Kohl to avoid political fallout from the funding scandal. But she took the lead in defusing the conflict over the national ceremony by agreeing that both she and Kohl will speak at the Oct. 1 party event.

Kohl "will continue to be honored for his historic role," she said in explaining that decision. She added that, as party leader, she will continue "to address mistakes where mistakes had occurred."

The announcement that Merkel and Kohl will share the spotlight at the Berlin event "sends out a signal, inconceivable not long ago, that they are treading common ground," the influential daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said. "Signs of Reconciliation," declared a headline in the weekly newsmagazine Focus.

Prominent party figures, however, continued to argue over Merkel's handling of the dispute, with some accusing her of weak leadership and others sniping at Kohl.

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