RATHER than smooth over rough waters, Helmut Kohl's latest proposal regarding the Polish-German border has stirred up more criticism. It has angered the Polish prime minister as well as politicians in West Germany, including Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Chancellor Kohl's own popular foreign minister. Mr. Genscher says he will bring up the subject with Mr. Kohl this week.
The latest chapter in the border controversy opened Friday, when Kohl suggested that a treaty finalizing Polish borders with a united Germany must confirm two things: a 1953 Polish waiver of any claim to war reparations and the rights of the German minority in Poland, a point agreed to by Kohl and the Polish Prime Minister Taduesz Mazowiecki in November.
Such a treaty, says West German government spokesman Dieter Vogel, could only be signed by a unified Germany and would be based on a joint resolution passed by both German parliaments after the March 18 elections in East Germany. Earlier last week, Kohl suggested parliamentary resolutions only, a Western diplomat here points out. ``Before, he was making a commitment without strings attached. Now, whether intentional or not, it looks like there are strings attached.''
The ``strings'' are not appreciated by the Polish prime minister.
In interviews on German television Friday night he said, ``There is no reason to think we won't keep our word'' on guaranteeing minority rights. And if Kohl wants to expand the border issue to reparations, ``we also have something to say,'' Mr. Mazowiecki added. ``For example, there's the question of compensation for Polish forced laborers in the Third Reich.''
Before World War II, Germany included about a third of present-day Poland. Because no peace treaty was signed after the war, the West German Constitution still considers the prewar frontiers as the true borders.
This unnerves the Poles, who have become more vocal about border guarantees since German reunification has swung from possibility to certainty. Poland has asked that the two Germanys and Poland draft a border treaty to be signed by the reunified Germany.
Kohl has always straddled the fence on the border issue and this infuriates the Poles. In speeches and at press conferences, he confirms the integrity of Poland's western border on the Oder and Neisse Rivers. But he can't go beyond this, he says, because of legal hindrances - like the Constitution. Only a ``total'' Germany has the authority to settle the border issue, Kohl says, a point he has emphasized in recent weeks.
This fence-straddling is bringing a shower of international and domestic criticism down on Kohl.
It is the suspicion that the legal aspect is a mere camouflage for Kohl's real concern - losing voters - that particularly enrages his critics. In West Germany, the chancellor's center-right Christian Democratic Union faces a close election on Dec. 2. A small shift in votes could make a huge difference in this country of carefully balanced political coalitions.
Kohl's critics say his position on the Polish border is merely to satisfy a select group: the expellees of World War II and their children. About 12 million Germans were forced from their homeland in parts of present-day Poland, Russia, and Czechoslovakia at the end of the war.
The ``League of Expellees'' in Bonn, with about 2 million dues-paying members, stands strongly by the Constitution and prewar borders. Members want the right to resettle in their former homeland, compensation for lost property there, and guarantees of rights for those Germans still living in these areas, whose culture was suppressed under the Polish Communist regime.
But why doesn't Kohl take a leadership position that's respected instead of playing a domestic political game that he can't win? asks Eberhard Shulz, a specialist on Poland at Bonn University. Kohl will have to give in before West German elections, anyway, he says. The border issue will have to be settled by the four victorious powers of World War II and a pan-European summit.
``I simply don't understand him,'' says Professor Shulz. ``He is poisoning the climate in Europe, [in West Germany], and in Poland all for an election issue based on the wrong theme.''