IT'S a good thing Steffen Reiche has a grandmother in West Germany - and that she just had a birthday. Otherwise, the co-founder of East Germany's new Social Democratic Party would not have been allowed to visit West Germany last week. Nor would he have sat in a television studio with former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and talked about ``the other Germany's'' new leader, Egon Krenz.
One of the priority items on Mr. Krenz's agenda is to remove the sort of travel hurdles that Mr. Reiche had to jump. The Interior Ministry has been hammering out a new policy that is expected to be introduced and possibly also approved today.
According to Communist Party members and press reports, the policy includes these points:
All citizens will be eligible to travel abroad (including to the West), regardless of connections to relatives. This will likely be carried out through the distribution of passes, though certain rules will still apply, according to party functionaries.
Citizens who have been arrested for attempts to leave the country will be granted amnesty.
People who have fled the German Democratic Republic (East Germany or the GDR) and want to come back will be allowed to do so.
The pressure for immediate action on travel reform comes because tens of thousands of East Germans have fled since Hungary snipped a hole in the Iron Curtain. Because of autumn vacation for East Germans, the number of refugees coming through Hungary has actually increased recently - with more than 2,600 arriving last weekend alone.
Also, there has been no letup in demonstrators back home demanding travel and other reforms, even though Krenz broadly hinted at easier travel rules last Wednesday, the day he took over former leader Erich Honecker's job.
East Germans don't have to drive far before they bump into a country that's off-limits. Visas are required to visit Poland, Hungary, or Czechoslovakia.
West German travel is mostly limited to retirees and people visiting relatives for important family events - weddings, funerals, christenings, and ``significant birthdays.'' Over the last five years, however, the number of visits from East to West Germany has more than doubled to about 6.7 million a year, according to the Ministry for Intra-Germans Relations in Bonn.
But even easing travel restrictions won't solve two key problems for the GDR.
There is little hard currency in East Germany to pay for travel to the West. East Germans can buy their train fare with their own country's marks. But spending money in West Germany is a problem. The GDR gives a traveler a pittance, 15 West German marks (about $8). The rest comes from generous relatives and hosts and the West German government, which makes one-time yearly contributions of 100 marks (about $54) a traveler.
If travel is to be broadened, what will the people do who don't have friends or relatives in West Germany?
One idea that has been suggested is that Bonn set up a fund where these people can exchange East German marks for West German marks. But Bonn officials say it is too early to make such a decision. Better to wait and see the exact nature of the travel reforms. West German spokesman Hans Klein said Friday that the money problem is primarily a problem of the nonconvertibility of the East German mark and that the decision to change this lies in East Berlin.
The other challenge for East Germany is the fact that West Germany grants automatic citizenship to East Germans. This has encouraged the refugee flight, says East Germany, and the policy should be stopped. But such a step ``is out of the question,'' says Wolfgang Sch"aubut, West Germany's minister of the interior.
Another Bonn official who asked not to be named says: ``The existence of the Federal Republic of Germany as a neighbor to the GDR is the permanent incentive. We can't change our attractiveness. The GDR has to make itself more attractive.''
Many West German observers say that a cut in travel restrictions would release the flow of people who still want to emigrate, but missed the recent opportunities. How heavy the flow would be, they say, depends on whether the East German government takes firm steps toward other reforms.