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Beset with problems, Kohl hopes visit with Clinton will help image


BERLIN -- German Chancellor Helmut Kohl meets wit President Clinton tomorrow as the leader of the most powerful country in Europe, but he goes at a time when his personal popularity is abysmal, his country beset with economic and social problems, its citizens soured on their leaders.

The big, bulky chancellor is confronting his lowest ratings since before the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, which, as it turned out, ensured his re-election by euphoric Germans enthusiastic about the future.

Now Germans are skeptical about their unification, uneasy about the future and unhappy with Mr. Kohl. Fewer than 30 percent of the voters approve of him, according to polls here.

Mr. Kohl no doubt hopes his first meeting with President Clinton will boost his stock here at home. President Clinton is extremely popular among Germans, who are bored with the same old political faces found here. The troubled German chancellor would have liked a meeting even earlier.

Newspapers here suggest that Mr. Clinton delayed because of Mr. Kohl's friendship with George Bush -- and because of certain cracks Mr. Kohl made about the new president during the U.S. election campaign. But Mr. Kohl probably doesn't want much more than a little respect, a little less tough talk about trade and a little more money for Russia. The last at least coincides with Mr. Clinton's present direction.

Despite his waning popularity, Mr. Kohl remains an extremely adept -- and lucky -- politician.

His wily politicking and force of will have enabled him to forge anew a so-called "solidarity pact" to pay for development in former Communist East Germany. He hammered it out during a marathon weekend conference with supporters and opponents.

But only 29 percent of Germans think the pact will work, and 28 percent doubt it will succeed.

Mr. Kohl is like a swimmer trapped in a pool where the water only reaches to his knees.

He's unable to get even his partners in Germany's governing coalition to agree on using German troops outside the NATO defense area or in peacekeeping missions that might involve combat.

The chancellor may have to face the embarrassment of telling Mr. Clinton that Germany must pull its military technicians out of AWACS surveillance planes if the United Nations decides to enforce no-fly zones over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Both the Liberal Party and Christian Socialist Union, which make up the coalition government with Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats, contend that the use of Germans troops to help enforce a no-fly fiat would be unconstitutional.

Germany stayed out of the Persian Gulf war because of constitutional provisions interpreted as banning any non-defensive combat role abroad.

Klaus Kinkel, the German foreign minister, is a leader in the liberal Free Democratic Party and he wants to be its chairman. His party may mount a constitutional challenge to any attempt to use troops in enforcement of no-fly rules.

The German people generally endorse sending their troops on non-combat humanitarian missions.

German planes airlift food and medicines into Sarajevo as they have into Somalia, and soon they will join the United States in airdrops over eastern Bosnia. But public support plummets when it comes to using German troops in combat.

For the moment, Mr. Kohl is lucky in that voters in Germany don't find any other political figure very much more attractive than him.

Next year Germans vote in federal, state and local elections, and even for members of the European Parliament. The chancellor is expected to survive simply because there's nobody inspiring enough to beat him. It has become commonplace here to say the fastest-growing group in German politics is the "Party of Non-Voters."

Petty scandals taint all parties and irritate voters: the housing minister endorses an apartment builder, a traffic czar gets help from a make-work program to pay for a maid, a state president takes free vacations offered by private companies.

Polls show Mr. Kohl's presumed opponent, Bjorn Engholm, leader of the Social Democratic Party, is losing popularity, too. Less than a month ago as many as 75 percent of Germans polled by Der Spiegel magazine saw Mr. Engholm as a man they'd like to see lead the country.

Now only 28 percent of the people tell pollsters they would vote for Mr. Engholm; 24 percent say they'd vote for Mr. Kohl. Another poll gives the chancellor only 23 percent and the challenger 35 per cent. Forty-three percent say they wouldn't vote for either one.

Germans worry about their jobs, the economy, flooding immigration from the shattered Soviet bloc, the cost of integrating eastern Germany, racism, right and left extremists and that old standby, law and order.

Unemployment is about 8.4 percent in western Germany, which has to pump money east. In Germany's industrial heartland, steel, auto and chemical producers have cut thousands of workers. So when German officials hear what sounds to them like trade protectionism coming from Washington, they wince and make their own threats. Mr. Kohl will attempt to iron out differences during his meeting with Mr. Clinton.

He and Mr. Clinton can agree on help for Boris N. Yeltsin, the embattled Russian president. Mr. Kohl is probably the Russian's most steadfast supporter.

Germany has sent about $50 billion in aid to Russia, about half the total from the West. The United States has kicked in about 6 percent. Mr. Kohl will urge Washington to give more.

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