Leipzig fair: cool spring start to East-West German ties

The pepper mill cabaret is playing to guffaws from packed houses.

The world-famous boys' choir of Bach's St. Thomas church just around the corner is singing the St. Matthew Passion. Shops are overflowing with flowers and fruit.

East German state and party head Erich Honecker has just graced the pages of Neues Deutschland with thoroughly photographed talks with exhibitors from the Soviet Union, West Germany, and Japan (page one), Bulgaria, the United States, and four other nations (page three), and Austria, Vietnam, Angola, and five others (page five).

The spring Leipzig fair, in short, is once more in full swing, repeating that commercial festival held almost every year since 1165 (give or take a few periods of wars and rumors of wars).

The week of March 14-20 is welcome to native Leipzigers, not so much for its lively cultural life - tickets to the sparkling new Gewandhaus concert hall are hardly obtainable to anyone not paying in Western currency - but more for the traditional influx of otherwise hard-to-get goods into local stores, and the influx of extra money to apartment owners offering bed and breakfast to the swarms of visitors.

The one recent Leipzig fair tradition that has remained somewhat ambiguous so far this time around is the fair's customary impulse to East-West German relations.

This spring the high-level economic talks between West German Economic Minister Otto Lambsdorf and East German Socialist Unity (Communist) Party economics specialist Gunter Mittag are taking place on the fourth day rather than the first day of the Soviet bloc's most prestigious industrial exposition.

This spring East-West German trade has been virtually stagnating for a year, following a 19 percent surge in 1980. This spring East Germany apparently wishes to withhold any political gestures toward increased East-West German human contact until these can be made unilaterally, and not under obvious West German pressure, or in the presence of West German officials. Mr. Honecker did indicate to West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt last December, at the first full East-West German summit in a decade, that he would make gestures toward ''lightening'' conditions for East-West German visits across the border. For West Germans this means reducing what amounts to a border crossing fee of 25 deutsche marks ($11) per day for every Westerner entering East Germany or East Berlin.

This ''compulsory money exchange,'' as it is officially termed, was raised to this level in fall of 1980 in the wake of worsened East-West relations after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was accompanied by a frostier East German tone toward West Germany. After Soviet President Brezhnev gave his blessing to an East-West German summit late last year, East Berlin reverted to a milder tone toward West Germany. And at the summit the East Germans left the West Germans thinking they would be forthcoming on some liberalization of East-West German contacts. But the 25 mark fee has remained in force - and it halved West German visits to East Germans last year to 4 million people.

There have been a few East German steps toward easing visits in the past two months. These have been very modest, though. Doubling the duty-free ceiling of gifts West Germans may bring to East Germans to 200 marks($90) per person per day; widening the categories of family occasions (first communions, baptisms, and so forth) on which East Germans might be given permission to visit relatives in West Germany; and vague talk of increasing group travel for East German youths abroad.

East Germany still has 21/2 months to make its expected gestures. The interest-free ''swing credit'' for trade that Bonn extends to East Berlin runs out June 30, and Bonn has indicated that it will not renew the swing unless it is satisfied that East-West German human contacts are being made easier.

Something of a test of nerves is going on here, with East Berlin downplaying the 850 million marks ($360 million) swing and suggesting that it cannot be blackmailed by any threat not to renew. In this vein East Germany managed to achieve a surplus in its trade with West Germany last year for the first time in over a decade and also managed to use only half of the swing fund in financing last year's total 12.5 billion marks ($5 billion) trade. West Germans regard this as a deliberately managed surplus, given East Germany's chronic deficit in trade with the West.

Other outstanding issues on the East-West agenda in Germany include construction of the West Berlin spur to the late-1980's Siberian-West European gas pipeline, electrification of a West German-West Berlin railroad, and cross-border environmental protection.

On the gas pipeline, East Germany resisted connecting West Berlin to the West German line as long as possible. Then when the West Germans and Russians finally agreed on the link last November, East Germany switched gears and sent government officials (rather than, say, gas firm officials) to discuss terms with West Berlin private businessmen. The aim here seemed to be to establish a precedent for separate jurisdiction for West Berlin independent of West Germany of the World War II allies who still formally administer the city and guarantee its security.

After a flurry of criticism from West Germans and the Western allies, the West Berlin pipeline negotiations have gone into recess. The expectation is that they will not be resumed until after technical tests have been made for underground storage of the gas in West Berlin - and after the Western allies and the West Germans have figured out a negotiating forum that does not compromise West Berlin's status.

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