Helmut Kohl Between East And West

HAMBURG: If reconciling contradictions is the art of politics, Chancellor Helmut Kohl is a gifted performer. For 14 years this former provincial boss of tiny Rhineland-Palatina has dominated Germany and Europe; in late October he becomes the longest-serving post-war German Chancellor. A man of massive physique which he unsuccessfully tries to reduce by annual visits to a healthfarm, Kohl is politically nimble, particularly in diplomacy. Here he combines old-fashioned German patriotism with a determination to weld his nation into the European Union. In the West, he is both a European integrationist and an Atlanticist. Towards the East, many contradictions must be reconciled.

Kohl never tires of reiterating that the Western pillars of order -- NATO and the European Union (EU) -- must not end at Germany's Eastern borders. But he worries that Russia may be antagonized as former Soviet satellites or even republics of the Soviet Union gain access to Western organizations. Squaring that circle is his central task.

Kohl's unease with Nato enlargement became visible in January 1994, when Nato's leaders accepted the principle of enlargement. Kohl (as well as Bill Clinton) were wary of rapid implementation, preferring the vague "Partnership for Peace". If a Western institution is to admit eastern members, Kohl felt, it must be the EU, not Nato. When Washington, for domestic reasons, changed its mind and pressed Nato expansion, the Chancellor had no choice but to consent.

Yet he remained unenthusiastic. In February 1996, Kohl urged that Nato put enlargement on hold until the Russian and US presidential elections passed. He instructed ministers not to discuss the matter publicly and suggested that talks not be left in the hands of the Nato machinery alone. To underline this, the Chancellor's first foreign policy activity after returning from his summer's vacation was a visit, in early September, to the ailing Boris Yeltsin, with whom Kohl has friendly relations.