Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's government has embarked on an ambitious strategy toward Eastern Europe that is designed to expand Germany's influence in the region.
Germany has taken the lead in sponsoring early membership in the European Union for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, an aid package for the Balkans that could run as high as $30 billion and a political initiative to end the long-running war between the Turkish army and the Kurds in southeastern Turkey.
At the same time, Schroeder's government is preparing for a new era in Russian politics by distancing itself from President Boris Yeltsin and cultivating closer ties with a prominent rival, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who was received here this week with pomp and fanfare by the chancellor and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
Among western neighbors such as France, the new focus of Germany's attention and resources is viewed suspiciously as an attempt to expand the country's influence and penetration in the new markets in Eastern Europe.
But German officials and foreign policy analysts insist the aims of Schroeder's government are rooted less in a grand design than in a defensive reaction to fears that instability in Eastern Europe would provoke a massive influx of refugees and immigrants.
"German foreign policy these days is driven by a simple priority: to prevent poor foreigners from swamping our prosperous country," said Michael Stuermer, a former adviser to Schroeder's predecessor, Helmut Kohl. "Given the dangers of right-wing extremism, the idea is to do whatever is necessary to keep would-be immigrants from leaving their homes and heading for Germany."
Michael Steiner, Schroeder's foreign policy adviser, said the basic aim of Germany foreign policy in Europe has been to "export stability to those countries that need it most. And in Europe right now, that means the eastern part of the continent."
Even so, Schroeder has made a point of trying to calm French fears about an eastward shift in Germany's perspective, away from its postwar alliance with France that has been the foundation for the creation of the European Union. In a recent speech, Schroeder contended that Germany would remain a "reliable partner" for its Western allies while serving as a special advocate for eastern states that want to join NATO and the EU.
Last week, Schroeder paid a two-day visit to Poland on the 60th anniversary of World War II and promised that Germany would do everything in its power to ensure that Warsaw becomes an EU member within four years.
Today, Schroeder went to Budapest to participate in events commemorating the 10th anniversary of Hungary's decision to open its borders to tens of thousands of East Germans, an event that precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall two months later. Later this month he will visit the Czech Republic.
"Berlin has always served as the bridge to our Central and Eastern European partners," Schroeder recently told the German Society for Foreign Affairs. "We are convinced that the European Union should not be limited only to the western part of the continent."
The French-German relationship has suffered in recent months as a result of clashing views over farm policy, the size of Germany's contribution to the EU budget and the apparent lack of warmth in Schroeder's personal ties with French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
While Steiner says he consults "two or three times a day" with his French counterparts and assures them that Germany is committed to a European approach to foreign and security policy, other analysts say the growing disparity in size, power and now, with the move of Germany's capital eastward to Berlin, geographic proximity will require a historic revision in French-German ties.
"It's only natural that the eastern part of the continent will become our preoccupation for years to come because Germans see this as a matter of historical destiny," said Immo Stabreit, a former German ambassador to Paris.