FRANKFURT AN DER ODER, GERMANY, NOV. 8 -- Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who provoked foreign fears of German unification earlier this year when he refused to guarantee the German-Polish border, promised today both to sign a border treaty and ease visa requirements for Poles by Christmas.
Meeting with Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki in this divided border city, Kohl reversed strategy and risked angering his right-wing supporters by agreeing to advance the signing of a border treaty by several months.
"Friendship cannot be commanded," Kohl said at a news conference with Mazowiecki. "Friendship in private life and between peoples can only grow and it is about time we did something in that direction."
Both leaders face elections in the next few weeks. Kohl's victory Dec. 2 is considered certain even by his opponents, giving the chancellor the freedom to play the role of magnanimous statesman today.
Mazowiecki, who faces a tight battle for Poland's presidency with Solidarity leader Lech Walesa Nov. 25, needed to come out of today's summit with a big boost. He got it.
"It is a big success and not just a compromise," the prime minister said. "We achieved everything we wanted." Mazowiecki, the first foreign leader to visit Germany since unification, can now tell Polish voters that he has brought them the travel freedom and border security they have long sought from Germany.
Kohl promised to make it easier for Poles to get visas to Germany in the next few weeks; he will also ask the European Community to allow Germany to drop the visa requirement entirely.
German-Polish relations have been difficult throughout history, and the events of World War II are never far beneath the surface in talks between the two countries.
Germany, which lost one-fifth of its territory to Poland in the postwar reshaping of Europe, insists on all manner of guarantees for ethnic Germans still living in Poland. Postwar refugees from what is now the Silesian portion of Poland are a powerful political force in Germany, and Kohl had assured their leaders that he would not agree to a border treaty until Warsaw agreed to secure the rights of its German minority.
Poland, which lost 6 million citizens to its Nazi German oppressors, continues to press for payments to Poles who served as slave laborers in Nazi work camps.
A recent poll of Germans found that they have a more negative image of Poles than of any other nationality. A similar survey of Poles two weeks ago showed that a majority consider the reunited Germany a danger to their country.
The strain between the two countries is most evident here along the Oder River, a narrow and polluted waterway that has divided this city into Frankfurt an der Oder on the west side and Slubice, Poland, on the east.
Here in Frankfurt, the transformation of east Germany continues at a breathtaking pace. The highway to Berlin is being remade -- not repaved, but completely dug up and rebuilt from scratch. Only four months after east Germans received Western currency, the number of Western cars on city streets almost equals its east German Trabants.
"It's a new life for us," said Ilsa Schroeter, a Frankfurt cashier. "It's too bad the people on the other side still have to live like that."
A three-minute stroll across the Municipal Bridge reveals another world -- of shabby clothing, sparsely stocked shops and residents worried at the latest bad news, the closing of the local furniture factory.
"It'll be better when we can cross that bridge," said Richard Kontek, 30, a taxi driver in Slubice. "Why should they have it so much better than us?"
Kohl, emphasizing the need to "begin a new chapter of German-Polish relations," said the two countries will sign a general treaty of economic and cultural cooperation in January; the parliaments of both countries are expected to ratify the two pacts in February.
"It was politically important for us to have the two treaties -- the border and the general one -- at the same time," a Kohl aide said. "That's why we wanted to wait until next year. But this way, Mazowiecki can say he got his way now, and the chancellor can say that he did not guarantee the border without getting security for the rights of the German minority."