OTTAWA - The four major World War II allies and the two Germanys announced agreement Tuesday on a framework for negotiating Germany's reunification. The statement said that after talks among the Soviet Union, Britain, France, the United States and East and West Germany here, the nations agreed on a two-stage plan.
West and East Germany would first discuss the domestic details of unification and then meet with the other four nations - the Big Four allied powers that defeated Nazi Germany in World War II - on more controversial questions relating to postwar security issues.
Although some difficult issues remain to be negotiated, the swift pace of agreements between East and West suggested that the unification of Germany, which has been divided for more than four decades, could be achieved much sooner than anyone had anticipated.
Six diplomats, including Secretary of State James Baker, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and East German Foreign Minister Oskar Fisher, said preliminary discussions would begin "shortly" leading to high-level conferences. "The process has been launched," said a Soviet official after the diplomats issued their statement.
As the foreign ministers met at the three-day conference in Ottawa, East and West Germany passed a milestone toward reunification by agreeing to begin immediate talks on forging a common currency.
Another more problematic issue in reunification is whether a united Germany would remain a member of the NATO alliance as West Germany and its allies want, or be neutral, as the East Germans and the Soviet Union prefer.
Under the plan for German reunification, the two Germanys would work out the internal aspects of unification themselves as soon as a democratic government has come to power in East Germany after elections on March 18.
The Germanys would then start to negotiate their future security arrangements with the four powers, which still retain legal rights over Germany.
Despite the importance of the agreement, the announcement was very short.
It said that the foreign ministers of West and East Germany would meet with their counterparts from the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain and France at an unspecified time and place "to discuss external aspects of the establishment of German unity, including the issues of security of the neighboring states."
It said that "preliminary discussions at the official level will begin shortly."
It is expected that if an agreement can be forged by the six nations, it would be formally approved by an East-West conference of 35 nations that originally met in Helsinki in 1975.
The three Western powers and the Bonn government want a united Germany to remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but on terms that "satisfy the legitimate security interests of the Soviet Union and Poland," as British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd put it Tuesday.
Hurd said at a news conference that non-German NATO forces would be barred from present-day East Germany. But he said the Soviet Union would be permitted to retain some of its troops stationed there for an agreed period.
In addition, a united Germany would "give a clear and binding agreement to respect Poland's present-day frontiers," which include land that was once German.
Asked Tuesday whether a united Germany could remain in NATO, Shevardnadze shrugged his shoulders and declined to reply.
But on Monday he said that "the most sensible way" to reunify Germany was to neutralize the country, although he acknowledged that this was "not the only way."
Throughout the meeting, the Soviet Union and its East European allies had appeared uncertain and divided over the Western proposals on German unification, their unity clearly under strain as a result of the political changes under way there.
Western officials maintained that the Soviets had been less rigid in private than in their public stance.
During the Ottawa talks, the three Western powers said that they have told the East Europeans in particular that a united Germany firmly anchored to the NATO alliance would be less threatening than if it is left on its own as neutral.
On Tuesday the British foreign secretary said "a useful weight of opinion" had formed during the conference against the idea of a neutral Germany in Eastern Europe. He cited Poland and Hungary as two leading opponents.
The NATO and Warsaw Pact ministers also concluded their talks Tuesday with broad agreement that an "open skies" agreement between the two alliances would play an important role in strengthening mutual confidence and reinforcing the process of disarmament under way in Europe.
The meeting of the foreign ministers had originally been called to begin negotiations for the "open skies" agreement between the two alliances under which each side would open its airspace for aerial inspection by the other as a means of boosting confidence between the superpowers.
But the talks quickly became dominated by Western efforts to negotiate on German reunification.
The agreements Tuesday suggested that the major powers were on the verge of an agreement cutting back on conventional military forces in Europe after more than 15 years of fruitless negotiations.
"Open skies opens a new dimension of confidence building," Genscher, the West German foreign minister, said.
Many officials also called for a new round of disarmament talks to begin as soon as the present Vienna negotiations produce a conventional arms reduction agreement later this year.
- Information from the New York Times, Washington Post and Cox News Service was used in this report.