THE surprising announcement by the East German authorities that they will stem the tide of third-world asylum-seekers into West Berlin has been welcomed in Bonn with great relief. An important issue that threatened to complicate the West German election campaign seems now to have become a closed case. But this action may in fact signal the beginning of more active and perhaps more independent East German diplomacy. It is far from certain whether this will make dealing with East Berlin any easier for the West than before, despite the fact that East German-Soviet relations may become at times more prickly also.
Recent developments in Europe have offered East Germany valuable new opportunities, of which it has availed itself more fully than is commonly recognized. As a result of it, East Berlin has managed to broaden its room for maneuver with both Moscow and Bonn. Through it all, the East Germans' shrewdness has been matched only by its cynicism.
During the last several months the East Germans have been waging a broad campaign advertising their willingness to fly potential ``refugees'' on their airlines into East Berlin, then let them travel without West German visas to West Berlin to seek asylum.
In the face of the resulting Asylantenflut, the Bonn government has seemed powerless. It could not introduce passport controls between East and West Berlin, nor was it prepared to alter drastically its very generous political-asylum law, which has enhanced the image of West Germany as a very open society. But as a result, the number of refugees entering West Germany last year jumped 109 percent to 74,000, and this year it could have reached 120,000.
East Berlin backed down, however, before the issue could explode in the West German election campaign this coming January or substantially harm relations between East and West Germany. This led many observers to conclude that East Berlin had retreated to spare itself further embarrassment.
But it is far more important to realize that East Germany first managed to reap not only hard currency gains from its airlifts, but considerable and durable political advantages as well. By initially delivering the good news about the introduction of visa controls not to the conservative Bonn government but to Johannes Rau, the opposition Social Democrats' candidate for chancellor, East Berlin handsomely rewarded them for their intensified contacts with East Germany's ruling Socialist Unity Party. It should not be difficult to predict the implications of this move for future contacts between the two parties. East German leaders may meanwhile rest assured that despite their tough new controls, they have created a very potent new tool that can be used to their advantage in future dealings with Bonn.
Moreover, Bonn's problems caused by the influx of asylum-seekers are far from over. Only about 50 percent of them have recently entered West Germany through East Berlin. The East German authorities have sought to compare the introduction of visa controls in Berlin with the new French directive requiring visas for visitors to France from countries outside the European Community and Switzerland. Again, this represents much more than a simple face-saving maneuver. It will enable the East Germans to hint at possible changes in visa controls in Berlin anytime they wish in order to pressure Bonn, while formally attributing it to ``technical factors.''
Some recent developments suggest that East Germany may have also successfully used the question of travel between the two parts of Berlin to gain certain leverage in their relations with Moscow. In May they began asking foreign diplomats to display passports at crossing points in Berlin, allegedly in response to Western concerns about security in the wake of the West Berlin discoth`eque bombing in April.
Deliberately overplaying their toughness, the East Germans could have expected that Moscow, under pressure from the Western powers, would ask them to return to the rules of status quo ante. To understand East Germany's stakes in this game, one must recall Moscow's anger over East German leader Erich Honecker's reluctance to drop his planned visit to West Germany after the USSR walked out of disarmament talks with the US in 1983. One should also keep in mind Moscow's suspiciousness about other aspects of East German relations with Bonn. In May, East Berlin demonstrated that it could actually be very tough with the West without paying a price in its relations with West Germany. It thus created for itself new room for adopting a more positive tone in its relations with Bonn when it perceives that this will serve its interests. It already does.
Thus, behind the talk about East Germans' ``retreats'' in Berlin, the fact is that they have learned to use the gate between the two parts of the city to their advantage by swinging it open and closed as it suits them most.
Milan Svec is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.