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Eastern Germany is filled with surprises and anachronisms

NATO's newest front-line jet fighter didn't come from McDonnell-Douglas or Lockheed; it's the Soviet-built MiG-29. No mistake. The MiG-29 found its way to NATO courtesy of the Luftwaffe of the former German Democratic Republic. When East Germany was bought out by West Germany last fall, the entire East German armed forces came along with the deal. Included were at least two squadrons of MiG-29s, one of the toughest and fastest fighters in the world, along with a mixed gaggle of other MiGs, most of them not worth much.

Beyond its top-gun capabilities, the MiG-29 must be one of the easiest fighters to keep flying. East German manuals indicate that a staff of 60 mechanics is enough to maintain 40 planes. The new united Federal Republic of Germany should know by now; it got the shop manuals, spare parts supplies and skilled technicians.

Current plans are to activate at least one squadron of the 29s _ known in NATO as Fulcrums _ with Federal German crosses on their wings and assign it to NATO. Will NATO be a new export market for the Soviet aircraft industry? Why not? The secrets of the MiG certainly are secrets no longer.

The contradictions in the newly unified Germany neither begin nor end with fighter planes. The entire society of the former East Germany is littered with anachronisms and surprises, most of them happy ones, and few of them reported in the West.

Nearly all indicators in the northern regions of the new federal states point to a fairly swift movement from a backward socialist system to a modern European one. Along side the favorable signs, there are, however, some disturbing and serious problems from years gone by.

But the good news first.

The plastic Trabant, East Germany's disposable car, is dying. The factory shut down recently, but the car was dead even before that. Not only was no one buying new ones; no one would keep the old ones. The greatest change on the roads of the new federal states comes in the bright colors of Fords and Audis, Volkswagens and even Mercedes-Benzes.

Instead of the blue pollution of the Trabi, the whine of turbo-chargers is taking over the roads of eastern Germany. The conundrum is how to get rid of the tons and tons of drab, cheap fiberglass that went into the Trabant bodies.

Service economy capitalism has penetrated into the crannies of the east. Since the un-reconstructed postal system doesn't deliver mail in a reasonable time, UPS and Federal Express already have put their brown and purple trucks into service.

While I was stopped at a red light in Schwerin, a small city in the New State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, I watched a heavy brown truck with the insignia of the Soviet Army rumble by. On its tailpipe was a familiar and more dexterous truck of the United Parcel Service, also in brown, but with the UPS gold shield on its door, instead of a red star.

The crowd for the grand opening of the first big Esso service station (complete with mini-mart attached) in Schwerin caused a traffic jam blocking fully three lanes of a four-lane highway and attracting even the carless, who made the trip by tram. Public transportation remains highly subsidized, with fares running about 12 cents a ride.

The shops of the towns and cities of the north and in what was East Berlin are full of both goods and paying customers. Before the currency union in July 1990, the dominant color of the GDR was drab _ drab gray, drab green, drab brown.

The most visible signs of the new era are the signs themselves, in brilliant colors. The longest lines are in front of automatic teller machines dispensing valuable Deutschmarks.

Newly built furniture and appliance stores blossom on the outskirts of nearly every city of any size. Western products fill the shelves, crowding out what little high quality merchandise is produced in the East, including cameras, binoculars and drafting instruments.

The self-service photocopy businesses flourish on every commercial street corner in the former East Berlin. Someone is making handsome profits on an activity that was carefully controlled in the former GDR.

An even better investment might be in a factory making new street signs. The thousands of Leninplatzes and Karl Marx Allees in the New Federal States revert to their old names as quickly as crews can erect new signs.

A flea market now operates most weekends in the former death zone in front of the Brandenburg Gate. It houses the retail end of the "Going-out-of-business sales" being conducted by the Soviet and GDR armies. Everything from Soviet officers' winter caps in genuine fur to high-class Soviet optical equipment _ night scopes, binoculars and telescopes _ all are on sale at incredibly low prices.

Fur caps sell for $30, the best binoculars for about $25 if one haggles. The night scope probably would go for $250, down from an asking price of about $350, and cheap at the top price in its leather pouch. It carries a 54-month guarantee "if bought from an authorized dealer . . ."

Everything is brand new. The retailers, who claim to be Soviet deserters and look as though they could be, must be getting their wares from a major black-market operator high up on the supply chain.

The former soldiers of the former East German Army don't have such high-quality material. Their officers' caps are crummy imitation fleece, although still brand new.

The easterners, however, can sell medals proclaiming that the bearer is a volunteer helper of the Border Guards (the troops who manned the Wall and enforced the death strips), or an expert marksman with weapons from handguns to assault rifles.

Behind Potsdamerplatz, in the middle of what was once the death strip behind the Wall, is a small mound, perhaps 15 or 20 feet high, with a ventilation shaft at its top.

It is the last trace of Hitler's bunker, but now it serves as the starting ramp for kids racing bikes or Soapbox Derby cars. The Fuehrerbunker has attained its highest and best use, but the children have no idea how their hill got its start in life; I asked them.

East Germany is a disappointed land, a place where the citizens hoped that their suffering since 1945 would be instantly alleviated when union came with the West.

It is a run-down land, which would benefit greatly from a cleaning and a coat of paint. But it is not a poor country. By any reasonable standard, its people enjoy a decent standard of living, although still on the wrong side of the German tracks.

At the rate investment is pouring in from the West, the standard estimate of five to 10 years to remodel East Germany looks pessimistic. In three years, the people will have a phone network, in two the factories will begin to produce modern goods, and by next week or next month, it will be as impossible to find a place to park in Leipzig as it is now in Frankfurt.

Peter Zimmerman is a nuclear physicist who has served with the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and as an adviser to the U.S. START treaty team. He is now an adjunct professor of applied engineering at George Washington University.