Student Searches for Silver Lining in Economic Problems
EAST BERLIN (AP) _ She studies for a job that may not exist, lives on an allowance that seems to buy less, and comes from a city where the main industry is expected to die.
Beatrice Uhlig sat in front of East Germany’s Parliament at midnight Thursday, one of a few hundred college students sprawled on the steps of the big building, their banners crumpled beside them.
Earlier in the day, thousands staged a sit-in at the Parliament’s main entrance to demand increases in their living allowances, which they say are not keeping pace with rising prices.
At 8 a.m., Beatrice Uhlig was calling for a higher stipend to stay in college. At midnight, as the students’ protest wore on, she was contemplating life after school.
″Do I have hope? Not much,″ said the 23-year-old dairy science student at East Berlin’s Humboldt University. ″But I am young. There is always a future.″
East Germany is to officially become a free market July 2, when it merges its economy with West Germany’s in a major step to German unification.
The day that Germans call ″Day X″ is still five weeks away, but the effects have already begun.
Joblessness has started to rise. Farmers are sitting on stocks of unsold meat and vegetables, which are being shunned by East German consumers who prefer better-quality Western goods.
Several industries are facing canceled orders from distributors, who are keeping their warehouses open for the influx of Western-made products they would rather sell.
East German lawmakers held a heated debate Thursday over whether to force retailers and distributors to sell goods grown or made by East German industries.
They finally decided not to tamper with the embryonic free market, voting instead to allow farms and industries to bypass wholesalers completely and try to sell their goods directly to retail stores.
This was a mere stopgap measure to Miss Uhlig, who has little hope for the future of her field.
She is an agriculture student specializing in dairy production, a highly specialized area that is geared to work on a Communist farm collective.
The huge collectives are run as overstaffed factories, with workers trained for specific jobs. The system is inefficient compared to market-oriented Western farms, where cows are milked by regular workers, not college-trained dairy engineers.
″I am not sure if there is much hope for my type of job,″ she said.
Miss Uhlig’s hometown is the southern industrial town of Zwickau, which produces the East German Trabant auto, a tiny, low-tech, two-cylinder car that is disappearing fast from East German streets.
″My sister’s husband works there, but I don’t know for how long,″ she said.
Economics Minister Gerhard Pohl told Parliament on Thursday that the government will discuss the possibility of closing large sections of industries to conduct massive retraining programs.
He said this discussion would take place against the backdrop of the ″hopeless situation″ in many industries, including the auto industry.
The stipend Miss Uhlig receives while attending school is 200 marks a month, right now the equivalent of 100 West German marks, or $60.
The students who protested Thursday demanded 500 marks.
″We need it,″ she said. ″Prices are high. Prices are high because East Germans are buying West German products.″
Miss Uhlig said she feels pessimistic because so much of East Germany’s transition to a new society is a mystery.
Both German governments believe an initial stage of economic hardship will dissipate as Western investment moves in, creating new jobs and raising living standards.
″I hope it happens,″ said Miss Uhlig.