Kohl cools East-West German ties, but keeps doors open

Somewhat cooler, but still intensive East-West German relations. This is what the newly reelected conservative government in Bonn is signaling to the decade-old government in East Berlin.

In line with this, the West German government conspicuously declined to send a Cabinet minister to the opening of the week-long Leipzig industrial fair March 13. The previous Social Democratic government did periodically send a Cabinet minister to this most important East-West trade fair, which always figured prominently in East German TV and press reportage.

The conservative West German government, which took office Oct. 1 and was reelected March 6, has not followed this practice. The East German coverage of West German participation in the fair so far is all but invisible.

At the same time, however, the government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl has already conducted three Cabinet-level meetings with East German officials. It also has no intention of curtailing East-West German trade, which soared 13 percent last year, largely as a result of East German hard currency strictures.

In the campaign prior to the March vote that reelected the Kohl government, Dr. Kohl's Bavarian allies Franz Josef Strauss and Friedrich Zimmermann talked of pursuing a hard-nosed policy toward East Germany and Poland. Bavarian Premier and Christian Social Union Chairman Strauss asserted that he had not fought the German policy (i.e., detente) of the Social Democratic government for 13 years just to promote ''continuity'' in policy toward the East now.

And Interior Minister Zimmermann told a rally of emigres from the former German territories that were awarded to Poland after World War II that the ''German question'' should include these territories to the East of the Oder and Neisse rivers (on the East German-Polish border). The clear implication was that Bonn should seek a revision of German borders at Poland's expense.

Chancellor and Christian Democratic Union Chairman Helmut Kohl has dissociated himself from such sentiments, however. He has stressed - and practiced - ''continuity'' of West German policy toward the East.

He has not withdrawn the outstanding invitation to East German Chairman of the Council of State Erich Honecker to visit West Germany in the foreseeable future. And he proceeded with the three Cabinet-level East-West German meetings on topics ranging from environmental protection to a cultural agreement.

Kohl's only public caution in approaching East-West German relations has been to say that Bonn would not pay any price whatever to get more human contact between East and West Germans.

West German leverage - symbolic gestures apart - is in any case limited. The Social Democrats had already extended last year the bulk of the interest-free swing credit for inner-German trade for several years - despite East Berlin's refusal to lower the effective fees for West Germans visiting East Germany. After these fees (in the form of compulsory currency exchange) were raised two years ago to 25 deutsche marks ($10) per day, the number of West German visitors to East Germany dropped by more than a third.

The new Bonn government does hope that its leverage in seeking the visa-fee reduction may now be increased by East Germany's growing economic strains. Under agreed conditions, for example, Bonn could be in a position to pay for electrification - as East Berlin has been asking - of a stretch of railroad running between West Berlin and West Germany.

The growing East German economic pressures are evident not only in the short supply of various consumer goods here, but also in the increase in East-West German trade to more than 14 billion deutsche marks ($34 billion) last year. With its exports finding poorer markets in the recession-hit West, East Germany has been shifting imports from other Western countries to West Germany.

This reduces East Berlin's need to pay out hard currency, as East-West German trade is essentially a form of sophisticated barter.

With this shift East Germany managed to reduce its hard-currency debts last year from an estimated $12.5 billion to $11 billion. In the process it increased its imports from West Germany by 16 percent, including a 97 percent rise in iron and steel, a 73 percent rise in agricultural products, and a 29 percent rise in chemical imports.

So far, there is no indication that East Berlin is interested in any further trade-off of humanitarian for economic concessions with Bonn, however. The main East German reaction to Kohl's policy has been to attack Kohl (a few days before the election) for opposing improved relations with East Germany.

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