In a move that surprised Bonn officials, East German leader Erich Honecker cut short a visit to a West German exhibit at the Leipzig Trade Fair today and refused to declare his intention about plans to visit West Germany later this month.
On Friday, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he expected a "definitive decision" by Honecker concerning the trip within the next few days. Bonn officials assumed Honecker would announce his plans during his customary stop at the booth of the West German chemical firm BASF on the opening day of the fair.
But the 72-year-old leader, who in the past has used the occasion to declare his support for East-West trade and improved relations between the two German states, did not speak and left after two minutes without touring the exhibits.
"I imagined it would be short, but not that short," said Hans Otto Brautigam, West Germany's diplomatic representative in East Berlin, who greeted Honecker here upon his arrival. "I limited myself to one sentence and expressed the hope for a good year in 1984."
Brautigam said Honecker nodded and responded only with a "very friendly" smile. He said he did not interpret Honecker's abrupt departure as a snub, nor would he speculate about its impact on the pending visit.
"Preparations for the trip are still going ahead, on both sides," Brautigam told reporters.
West German officials said it was clear to them that Honecker did not stay long because he wished to avoid mention of the controversial trip. Since late July, the Soviet press has attacked West Germany for seeking to undermine East Germany's socialist system through "economic levers and political contacts." At the same time, Soviet commentators have warned Honecker about encouraging an improvement in East-West ties, especially between the two Germanys.
The West German sources said they believe Honecker wants to carry out the visit but that he has not reached a final decision because he is trying to reach a compromise with Moscow.
Before the Soviet propaganda campaign, the West and East German governments agreed that the Honecker visit should take place from Sept. 26 to 29, West German diplomats said.
But lately, there have been suggestions that Honecker may postpone the trip until after the U.S. elections in November to satisfy Soviet demands for nullifying any tangible improvement in East-West relations that might be exploited by President Reagan in his bid for reelection.
Other speculation has focused on the possibility of a dispute between hard-line and pragmatic factions in the Soviet Politburo. In that case, Honecker might be waiting to see how the power struggle is resolved.
Despite Soviet misgivings, East Germany has clung steadfastly to its support for detente and dialogue with the West. The Communist Party daily Neues Deutschland, in an editorial yesterday marking the 45th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, claimed that East Berlin was "doing everything to help improve the international climate and create an atmosphere of confidence."
"It is better to talk ten times than to shoot once," the newspaper added.
The Leipzig International Trade Fair, held twice a year, is produced with great fanfare by the East German government to demonstrate its role as a global trading partner and its commitment to East-West commercial contacts. The autumn exhibition features the products of more than 6,000 firms from 100 countries.
At the massive Soviet pavilion here today, Honecker was greeted and escorted on a tour by Deputy Premier Leonid A. Kostandov, who is heading a large Soviet delegation here.
Kostandov was quoted extensively in an interview with Neues Deutschland this week, praising the trade policies pursued by Honecker's government. However, he said that any improved economic cooperation between East and West must be accompanied by even more intensive trade within the socialist bloc.