WEST GERMANY is carving an unusual niche for itself as the key European partner to both superpowers. During his visit to Bonn this week, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said Soviet-West German relations have taken a ``decisive step'' forward, ending the long chill that marked the post-war period. The visit comes just two weeks after President Bush was in town - claiming Bonn as a ``partner in leadership.''
Analysts say the back-to-back visits are no coincidence.
Both superpowers have pushed West Germany to the top of their respective lists of countries worth courting. The Soviets want West German support for their ambitious economic restructuring plans, while the United States sees its increasingly independent West German ally as the emerging central power of Europe.
``The Americans now recognize that the best avenue for reaching all of Europe - especially Eastern Europe - is through the Germans,'' says an aide to a key conservative member of the West German Bundestag (parliament).
But this won't be easy. US-West German relations, although based on decades of close alliance, have suffered heavy strains recently.
Bonn and Washington have wrangled over US exports of hormone-treated meat, West German companies' alleged chemical sales to Libya, and most recently, over whether to open negotiations with the Soviets aimed at eliminating short-range nuclear weapons.
As for the Soviets, analysts say they have many reasons - besides the obvious economic perks - to want cozier ties to Bonn.
``The Soviets want to wind down the military-threat scenario in Europe,'' says a Bonn Foreign Ministry official. He adds that West Germany - on the front lines of the East-West confrontation - is a natural place for the Soviets to focus diplomatic energies.
But it's more than that.
West Germany is also Moscow's most enthusiastic partner in the West. ``We're eager to develop our relations with all Western countries,'' says Soviet spokesman Gennady Gerasimov, ``but some countries are more willing than others - and the West Germans are extremely willing.''
Western diplomats say Mr. Gorbachev appears determined to use his links with West Germany to advance a vision for peaceful cooperation on the continent. But he's hesitant to spell out what that means and unwilling to do anything that would substantially alter Europe's post-war status quo.
This week's visit in Bonn is a good example of the Soviet leader's delicate balancing act.
The four-day tour - which included extensive side trips outside of Bonn - was peppered with references to ``common European values'' and a ``shared European home.'' Bilateral ties also got a clear boost - with the signing of 11 agreements on economic cooperation and cultural exchanges as well as a wide-ranging document on German-Soviet relations.
Both sides hailed the document, the first of its kind between Moscow and any Western country, as a foundation stone for a ``common European house.'' In the paper, the two countries vow to eliminate the obstacles that separate Europe. It doesn't mention, however, the Berlin Wall or the reunification of Germany. It also sidesteps the issue of short-range nuclear missiles, although it reels off a list of arms-control objectives.
The Soviet leader also used the trip to express concerns about the economic integration of Western Europe. Speaking to a group of industrialists in Cologne on Tuesday, he said he hadn't seen the economic or political proof that a single European market in the West wouldn't create ``an impenetrable wall across Europe.''
Meanwhile, in his first public response to a US arms-control initiative unveiled in Brussels last month, Gorbachev said that it represented a serious reply to the Warsaw Pact's arms initiatives. He also held out hope that East-West talks aimed at cutting tanks and troops in Europe could slide forward quickly. But he didn't launch his own counterinitiative, as some analysts thought he might.
Despite the mixed results, West Germans remain wildly enthusiastic about the Soviet leader.
Mr. Gorbachev was greeted by a cheering mob when he went to Bonn's town hall to sign a ceremonial guest book. The Soviet leader, who plunged into the crowd to shake hands, was later quoted as saying that he felt he was in Red Square among his own people.
A poll released just before Gorbachev's arrival showed that 90 percent of West Germans trust the Soviet leader, while only 58 percent have confidence in President Bush, and 50 percent in West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
Such attitudes have sparked rumblings in Western capitals - where some worry that West Germany is getting ready to ease out of its commitment to the NATO alliance. Most experts insist that this is unlikely.
But Bonn does face the difficult task of balancing its links to both superpowers. This new role is complicated by the country's history, which is deeply marked by the events of World War II. Because of its past, West Germany has long sought to avoid playing a major role in European affairs. Indeed, Bonn was long referred to as Europe's economic giant, but political midget.
Now that this is changing, many in Bonn are dedicated to playing ``peacemaker'' between East and West.
``The West Germans feel they have a historic opportunity to establish a permanent peace in Europe,'' says Philippe Moreau Defarges, a foreign policy expert at the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.
The recent scuffle within NATO over short-range nuclear weapons is one example of this.
Bonn has pressed hard within the alliance for early negotiations to eliminate the weapons and a delay on deciding whether to update the arsenal. This is partly the result of domestic opposition to the weapons, most of which would be used on German territory in a war. But it's also linked to German concerns that the West might somehow damage the improving climate of East-West relations.