In a surprise and ominous move, the East German government announced tonight that it was doubling the amount of money Western visitors must exchange when entering the county.
The action was a particular blow to West Germans, who make millions of visits a year across the border. Bonn officials reacted with astonishment and anger at the news, which came four days after Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's coalition was reelected on a platform of continued detente with neighboring Communist states.
Bonn government spokesman Klaus Boelling said the East German decision presented "a heavy burden" for relations between the two German states, whose dealings have become a barometer of the climate for East-West ties in Europe generally. Boelling called the new regulations "a flagrant contradiction to East Germany's many assurances that it sought a further normalization of relations with the Federal Republic."
Anxious to shield their own cooperative links from the chill in Washington-Moscow relations following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan last December, the two Germanys had appeared until recently as friendly to each other as ever.
Today's decision is likely to reduce the flow of Western visitors to East Germany, and for this reason political observers linked today's action to East Berlin's concern over events in neighboring Poland. In addition, the higher forced exchange amounts should provide more hard currency income for East Germany's troubled economy.
The political upheaval in Poland has had an unnerving effect on Warsaw's Communist partners. It has placed unavoidable strain on East-West contacts and appears to be pushing both the North Atlantic and Communist alliances into greater inner alignment and outer isolation.
Along this line, one further effect of the sudden East German move will be to complicate East-West talks on European security beginning in Madrid next month, one of the followup meetings to the 1975 Helsinki accords. European officials had hoped to use the conference to progress on a range of human rights and disarmanent issues.
Earlier this year, the unrest in Poland forced the indefinite postponement for the second time this year of a visit by Schmidt to East Germany to meet with East Germany leader Erich Honecker. Not since 1970 has a West German leader visited East Germany.
Bonn's permanent representative in East Berlin was ordered tonight to lodge a formal protest Friday with the East German government against the changes, which are to go into effect Monday. The official East German news agency ADN carried a decree from the Finance Ministry announcing the new currency regulations.
Under the new rules, the amount of money a western visitor must exchange for East German currency at the border will be increased from the equivalent of 13 West German marks ($7.20) to 25 West German marks ($13.90).
Today's decree also abolished a special cheap minimum exchange rate of 6.5 German marks ($3.60) for the thousands of visitors coming to East Berlin every day from West Berlin. These travellers now will also have to exchange the minimum 25 marks. Additionally, exemptions for children and old age pensioners were eliminated.
The new regulations are the first alteration in the exchange requirements since November 1974. More than 7 million West Germans and West Berliners travelled to East Germany last year.
Visitors cannot change any of their East German marks back into Western currency but the decree said they could deposit unspent money in East German bank accounts and use it on their next visit. Many western visitors, however, complain that they are unable to spend their East German marks because East German shops have relatively little to offer.
West Berlin Mayor Dietrich Stobbe said the new measures breached all East-West German agreements on easier travel. "They're also a slap in the face for detente and will do huge damage to relations between the two states," he said.