Soviet officials say they are highly satisfied with this week's visit by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. The sensitive issue of a divided Berlin did not prove fatal to talks. Trade, scientific, and cultural agreements were signed, and Moscow promised progress on the question of ethnic Germans who want to leave the Soviet Union. According to Chancellor Kohl, the Soviets also promised to release all political prisoners by the end of the year.
The stage is now set, officials say, for Mikhail Gorbachev's return visit to Bonn next spring.
But while both sides appear pleased with the tone of their discussions, the visit did not result in any visible change of position by either country on nuclear or conventional weapons.
Following Dr. Kohl's surprise announcement on political prisoners, Soviet spokesman Gennady Gerasimov told journalists the issue had been ``touched upon'' during Soviet-German talks. He said that by the end of the year, the question would be ``completely closed.''
The human-rights organization, Amnesty International, estimates there are 150 prisoners of conscience in detention here. That includes between 50 and 75 people held for religious beliefs, more than 20 conscientious objectors, and at least 12 people detained in psychiatric institutions.
Mr. Gerasimov said there were ``literally 20 or so'' people held that would be considered political prisoners by the West.
The Kohl visit is the most important step in Moscow's effort to reach out to Western Europe. This effort is due only in part to the enforced lull in US-Soviet talks caused by US presidential elections. The Soviet leadership is also intensely aware of the approach of 1992, the target date for Western European economic integration. And there is also a new sense of urgency in Moscow's approach to domestic economic development.
The Soviets say they have been remiss in their preparations for 1992. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze recently complained at the lack of attention being paid to West European integration. And for a variety of reasons, Moscow wants foreign loans fast.
At an unexpected meeting of the Communist Party Central Commitee last September, Mr. Gorbachev stressed the need to accelerate the pace of economic change. Moscow needs credits to modernize its antiquated industrial sector. There are also persistent hints that the Soviet Union is considering buying consumer goods to blunt the Soviet public's growing dissatisfaction.
Since the start of October, reports have surfaced in the Western press that Moscow is negotiating for about $9 billion worth of loans with European and Japanese banks. A West German banking consortium has already signed an agreement worth $1.65 billion and intended to modernize light industry. A slightly larger loan is being discussed with Britain. Italian banks are said to be preparing to lend $775 million. And a $2 billion French loan reportedly is in the early stages of negotiation.
West Germany plays a vital role in Moscow's efforts to reach out to the West. It is the Soviet Union's biggest trading partner in the Western world. On the arms control front, Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher has shown considerably greater interest in some of Moscow's arms proposals than have some of his other NATO colleagues. And West German public opinion polls have reportedly indicated a dramatic improvement in German attitudes both to the Soviet Union and to Gorbachev.
The Soviet leadership's keenness to make friends with Kohl was signaled in the buildup to his visit. Flattering profiles of the chancellor and his country were carried in the official media. The chancellor's unfortunate 1986 comparison of Gorbachev with the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, was largely forgotten. Literaturnaya Gazeta, for example, recalled that one of Kohl's teachers had been a communist, who ``opened up another world'' to the young Helmut. It praised Kohl's ``political realism'' and ``natural'' moderation. It also indignantly denied that the Soviet Union had displayed a hostile attitude to the chancellor.
In late 1986, however, the tone of the Soviet media was sharply different. This is how the Communist Party daily Pravda described Kohl's Goebbels gaffe: ``Unlike his customary and routine exercises in anti-Sovietism, his endless oaths of devotion to his American patrons, H. Kohl indulged in the crudest attacks against the Soviet leadership in an interview with the American magazine Newsweek.'' These attacks extended ``right down to foul parallels with Nazi Germany.''
These were not an aberration, Pravda said. They were part of a ``definite political line.'' During the electoral campaign taking place at the time, Pravda alleged, Kohl had decided to reanimate political ideas of the Cold War.
Two years are a long time in politics, however, and Moscow's relations with Bonn now appear as good if not better than those with East Germany. Certainly the visit to Moscow last month by East German party leader Erich Honecker was by comparison to the Kohl trip a subdued occasion. Certainly the West German leadership has shown more enthusiasm for perestroika (restructuring) than Mr. Honecker. Soviet analysts now classify the German Democratic Republic's attitude to reform as at best ``neutral.''