BONN, SEPT. 3 -- The West German government sought today to dampen expectations for next week's visit here by East German chief of state Erich Honecker. Officials predicted that the trip's symbolic value would outweigh the importance of any agreements to be reached.

A joint communique to be signed Tuesday "probably" will announce that Chancellor Helmut Kohl will pay a return visit to East Germany at a date yet to be decided, Chancellery minister Wolfgang Schaeuble told a news briefing.

But Schaeuble cautioned reporters that the five-day trip, Honecker's first to West Germany, would not yield any "big sensations." He and other officials said that they had seen no signs that Honecker would make major concessions on the two issues of greatest importance to Bonn: improving human rights in East Germany, and reducing short-range nuclear missiles or conventional forces based there.

Instead, Bonn hopes that the trip, which begins Monday, contributes to a gradual improvement in inter-German relations and to ensuring continuation of recent modest reforms on human rights issues in East Germany, Schaeuble said.

East Germany has allowed a sharp increase in the past 18 months in visits to the West by citizens below retirement age. In July, it announced a general amnesty for prisoners and became the first Eastern Bloc country to abolish the death penalty.

"Our concern is to make sure that the human improvements that have been achieved are perpetuated," said Schaeuble, who has played a key role in arranging the trip and will greet Honecker at the Cologne-Bonn airport.

Despite Schaeuble's caution, a western diplomat familiar with East Germany suggested that Honecker may be saving up a "surprise" for the trip. "I can't imagine that he would arrive without something dramatic, some gift for Bonn, if only to grab headlines," he said.

Schaeuble said Honecker would view the trip as a "success" in his campaign to assert East Germany's legitimacy as a nation, as Bonn does not recognize its independence.