President Koehler dashes through the Baltics

  • 2004-11-25
German President Horst Koehler was on a whirlwind tour of the Baltics this week in a show of support for the Baltic states' progress and to touch base on matters of strategic economic importance for the two sides.

Koehler began his trip in Lithuania on Nov. 22, where he lauded the country's "fruitful" economic development and its rapid ratification of the EU's Constitutional Treaty.

"Germany is happy because the rapid ratification indicates Lithuania's applauding of the European constitution and the aim to make euro-integration more active," said Koehler.

President Valdas Adamkus said he briefed his German counterpart on Lithuania's relations with Russia and Belarus and discussed the Nov. 21 elections in Ukraine. For his part, Koehler inquired about the implementation of Kaliningrad transit agreements, and Adamkus assured him that the transit of cargo and passengers to the Russian exclave via Lithuania was proceeding in a smooth manner.

To be sure, Koehler, though a financier by heart, takes great interest in East European affairs. Born in Poland in 1943, he spent most of his childhood as a refugee as his parents attempted to flee Soviet rule, first in Poland and then in East Germany. When Koehler was 10 his family managed to escape to the West via West Berlin.

In 1979 Koehler obtained a doctorate in economics and went on to become state secretary in the Finance Ministry, where he was one of the architects of monetary unification of the two Germanies in 1990 and a lead negotiator in the withdrawal of Soviet troops. In the 1990s, Koehler's role in East European development received a huge boost when former Chancellor Helmut Kohl nominated him to head the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. In 2000 he moved to Washington to become managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

It is no coincidence that, after becoming German president in May - a post that, as in the Baltics, holds more of a figurehead status and is used to buttress foreign policy initiatives - Koehler made his first state visit not to France or Britain or Austria, but to Poland.

Though he is not a professional politician, Koehler's sympathies lie with the right-of-center, and the banker has not been shy in offering criticism of Germany's bloated welfare state and the need for Germans to be more self-reliant and to work longer hours.

"In my opinion, Germany is too slow on the path toward a knowledge-based society," he said during his acceptance speech on May 23. "Germany should become a land of ideas."

Known for his candid assessments, Koehler fomented controversy at home two months ago when he rejected a suggestion that the government try to bridge the socio-economic gap between the two Germanies. In the president's opinion, any such attempts would lead to a bloated subsidy state and crushing debt for future generations of Germans. The comments reignited the debate about the future of Europe's largest economy and the urgency of Agenda 2010.

Koehler's trip to the Baltics this week is seen as a continuation of his mission to integrate East and West. In Lithuania, he and Adamkus discussed crucial energy projects, including a new gas pipeline from Russia via Lithuania and an extension of the West European electricity grid that would connect the Baltics.

Though ultimately Koehler's role in realizing these grand projects will be minimal, his positive assessment of Baltic trends will be instrumental in galvanizing both popular and political support in Germany.