WEST German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's announcement from Moscow that he has been assured that ``all persons regarded in the West as political prisoners'' would be released by the end of the year is surely good news. Soviet spokesmen did some backpedaling right after Mr. Kohl's statement, but this promise has evidently been corroborated by other, similar assurances from Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze to his German, French, and American counterparts. If the engineers of the new Soviet public-relations machine are as savvy as they are supposed to be, the West should expect to see some results from this promise - even though the Soviets' definition of political prisoners differs from Westerners', and in the end, it will be the Soviet definition that counts.
The Soviets are expected to respond, though, to lists of names given them by Western governments. Presumably the human-rights organizations are doing all they can to ensure that no prisoner of conscience languishes in a Soviet institution for lack of an advocate in the West.
Kohl's visit last week illustrates the new European activism vis-`a-vis the Soviet Union; Europe has gone from flash point to meeting point for East and West. The German-Russian relationship is quite complex, however, particularly against the larger East-West backdrop.
No other European country is divided like Germany. Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, his policy of reaching out to the Soviets and East Germans, has been picked up by Mr. Kohl's Christian Democrats as well. However firmly rooted in NATO and the European Community West Germany may be, its neighbors are sometimes troubled by its ``eastward longings.'' They are concerned that West Germans might shift leftward toward Finnish-style neutrality, or rightward, in a troubling burst of nationalism, toward reunification.
But Germany has had a love-hate relationship with the Soviets, and with the Russians before there was a Soviet Union. A few years back Kohl compared Mikhail Gorbachev to Nazi propagandist Goebbels. This time Kohl acknowledged Russians' sufferings at the hands of the Nazis during World War II. And the Soviets, as part of the human-rights thaw under Mr. Gorbachev, are allowing thousands of ethnic Germans to return to their ancestral homeland; this surely helps German-Soviet relations.
Trade, of course, was supposed to be the focus of the Kohl visit; the Soviets, after all, need billions of marks' worth of consumer goods, and the Germans are eager to supply them. These opportunities may be more apparent than real; ``needing'' is for the Soviets never quite the same as ``being in the market for,'' and Soviet trade is never quite what eager Westerners hope it will be. But if an ostensible business trip becomes the occasion for progress in relations between peoples, that's all to the good.