October 25, 2005

Fischer quits German stage, silent but with options

By Erik Kirschbaum

BERLIN (Reuters) - One of Germany's most colorful
politicians of the last two decades, Foreign Minister Joschka
Fischer, has abruptly pulled the plug on his electrifying

The charismatic leading member of the Greens party, who has
long enthralled and entertained Germans with his meteoric rise
from high school dropout to self-educated vice chancellor,
voluntarily moved to parliament's back bench last week.

He will soon be replaced as foreign minister after last
month's election saw Germany's governing coalition lose its
majority, heralding a return to opposition for the Greens.

Fischer led his environmental party off the opposition
benches and into government in 1998, where they have left their
stamp on sweeping social, energy and foreign policy changes.

But the show -- at least in Germany -- is over now even if
the man who reinvented himself a dozen times on a journey from
stone-throwing revolutionary at a car factory to necktie-clad
minister may still have his eye on top international jobs.

Fischer, 57, was once seen in Brussels as a leading
contender to succeed Javier Solana, 63, should the European
Union foreign policy chief resign before his term ends in 2009.

"I was one of the last live rock 'n rollers in German
politics," Fischer said in his only newspaper interview since
he surprisingly announced he would not lead the Greens in
parliament. "Now the lip-synching generation is coming."

Fischer is expected to make a farewell journey to the
United States in late October shortly before Chancellor Gerhard
Schroeder's Social Democrat (SPD)-Greens government turns over
the reins to Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat-SPD coalition.

"He's spent seven years closely working with three U.S.
secretaries of state under at times difficult circumstances,"
said one diplomat, confirming a meeting was being planned.
"There's a lot of mutual respect."

While Fischer loudly stood up to Defense Secretary Donald
Rumsfeld who was defending the Iraq invasion at a conference
before the war, he also shaped Germany's staunch support of the
U.S. crackdown on Islamic militants, and operations in
Afghanistan and the Balkans.


Even though Fischer was one of the most talkative and most
frequently quoted German politicians in the "Red-Green" era
from 1998, the talented orator with the sharp tongue has gone
silent and virtually disappeared from public view in recent

A newspaper published a picture of Fischer watering the
plants on his balcony -- looking like an ordinary retiree
rather than a powerful minister. Other accounts have said he is
happy just cooking pasta for his girlfriend.

The public has long been fascinated by Fischer's life, his
four broken marriages and his tendency to rapidly lose weight,
gain it back and then lose it again.

He is remembered for wearing sports shoes when being sworn
in as environment minister of the state of Hesse in 1985. His
backing of NATO's war over Kosovo in 1999 drew much fire: one
critic burst Fischer's eardrum with a paint-bomb.

Fischer says he won't miss having his bodyguards, being
chauffeured or any other perks of his job.

"I'm going to sit in the last row in parliament, think
about things and stay silent," Fischer told the Tageszeitung
daily in his only interview. Asked if he had a new job lined
up, he said: "I don't have anything -- except for a good mood."

Fischer raised Germany's diplomatic profile on the world
stage and played a surprising supporting role in the Middle
East peace process.

"His political career in Germany is over and he's not
someone to sit on the back benches for long," said Dietmar
Herz, political science professor at Erfurt University, who
said he could imagine Fischer in an academic job at a U.S.

"He doesn't have a degree, but that shouldn't matter. I
don't think he'll stay in parliament for long. There aren't any
open EU or NATO positions, and the top job at the U.N. is
probably beyond his reach. Fischer has always managed to land
on his feet and I'm sure he'll find something suitable again

Earlier hopes for a dream job -- as EU Foreign Minister --
were foiled by the woes of the EU Constitution, which was
rejected in French and Dutch referendums this year.

Others have mentioned his name for top U.N. positions. But
whether a new government would nominate Fischer, whose Greens
are the smallest opposition party in parliament, is unclear.


In Berlin, Fischer is blamed by some for a playing a role
in the demise of Schroeder's SPD-Greens government. His
management of a visa scandal at the German embassy in Kiev was
widely criticized, even by other government leaders.

The political damage from the lax visa policy that let
thousands of Ukrainians into Germany hurt Schroeder's SPD, but
not the Greens. It was one of the reasons the SPD were crushed
in a May election in North Rhine-Westphalia, analysts said.

"It was the final straw for a lot of voters," said Herz.
Schroeder then called early elections over Fischer's protests
and the SPD campaigned without a pledge to renew the coalition
with the Greens. They fell well short of winning a third term.

"Germany has become a different country in the last seven
years," Fischer said. "We're more open. We're more pro-
environment despite industry moaning. We're freer. We Germans
now know more who we are, a nation determining its own course.

"Germany's a wonderful country," he added. "That someone
with a past like mine can say something like that says it all."