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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Unsettling Return to Germany

Recession and prejudice hamper the integration of those whose ancestors left for Russia or were trapped in the postwar U.S.S.R.

October 22, 2002|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

WEISSWASSER, Germany — In the light of an Esso gas station, where abandoned apartment buildings slump on streets named for dead heroes, a half-drunk boy from Kazakhstan caught a sucker punch in the nose.

Some would say Nikolai Kusnezov had it coming.

"I didn't mean to, but I was drinking and I spit out some beer and it hit the shoes of this German guy," said the big-shouldered 16-year-old, remembering that evening in June. "I told him I didn't want any trouble. The guy told me to 'go away.' I said, 'Why should I?' "

Nikolai has won his share of tiny, whirlwind battles against other boys at the Esso. But on that night, he lay beaten on the pavement.

"As the guy walked away," he said, "I heard him call me a 'dirty Russian.' "

Nikolai is not Russian. But such distinctions are merely semantics in this east German town near the Polish border. Nikolai is one of Weisswasser's 1,250 "resettlers," the often-resented -- and sometimes feared -- descendants of those who generations ago fled Germany for better lives in Russia, or were trapped inside the Soviet Union during the tumult of redrawn borders after World War II.

They lost much. But they kept their German heritage. Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the map of Europe again was recast, nearly 2 million resettlers and their relatives, scattered from Siberia to Uzbekistan, have dusted off family albums and driven their rusty Ladas and Trabants to claim citizenship in Germany.

Most have remained. Some have found prosperity. But over the years, many other resettlers have discovered the land of their ancestors to be less welcoming. This reality is especially hard on the young, and resettler teenagers often turn to drink, drugs and crime.

Economic turmoil has hampered their integration throughout this nation of 82 million. They are shackled by sparse opportunity in a country reeling from recession and the huge cost of uniting east and west. Nikolai sees this every day in Weisswasser, whose coal fields were once a key energy source for the formerly Communist east but whose unemployment rate is now a stubborn 26%.

The resettlers raise complex questions about Germany's -- and, to a larger extent, Europe's -- ability to cope with emerging multicultural societies. Unlike Germany's populations of Turks and Africans, the resettlers look like native Germans. They are, in fact, from the same ethnic stock. Yet similarities are obscured by differences and prejudices, and resettlers are often viewed with the same suspicion as other immigrant groups.

Speaking little or no German, many resettlers and the relatives who tag along with them end up on welfare, living on the ethnically segregated fringes of poor towns. Police and native Germans around the country claim that resettlers are often trouble, especially violent young men and boys who travel in gangs. This provokes retaliation by German youths, and sometimes outbursts by neo-Nazi gangs angry at Germany's flood of foreigners.

In the northeastern city of Wittstock, a 24-year-old resettler died in May after being beaten by three right-wing extremists, including a soldier in the German army. One month later, according to law enforcement reports, five resettlers, one of them mocking police with a "Heil Hitler" salute, scuffled with officers and were arrested for pummeling two German locals.

"We've had clashes like this between these two groups for 10 years," said Gerd Schnittcher, a prosecutor in the Wittstock district. "Especially shocking for us is that 15 to 20 Germans witnessed the latest murder and none of them are coming forward. Most are scared of retribution. Others sympathize with the killers."

Immigration Control

The German government is seeking to reduce the number of all immigrants, including resettlers and their relatives. New citizenship and immigration regulations -- one of which stresses German language proficiency -- have been tightened. In recent years, Germany has also given German descendants living in former Soviet republics more than $100 million in small business loans and job retraining grants to entice them not to move west.

So far this year, the number of those applying for resettler status has fallen by 20%.

The government, however, still faces the challenge of what to do with young resettlers such as Nikolai Kusnezov.

"Resettler youths have been pulled from their roots," said Christian Klaembt, a Weisswasser social worker. "They've lost their history. They don't know who they are. In the Soviet Union, they were considered Nazis and discriminated against. Then their parents promised them a better life in the West. But things are no better. They're still poor. They're disillusioned. They want a piece of the cake but can't have it. They turn to alcohol, drugs and violence. Some start drinking vodka at 12 and 13."

Nikolai tasted alcohol early.

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