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"Unity is within our grasp,' Kohl says

East is East and West is West, but not for much longer, it seems, in Germany. On Tuesday, talk of reunification concerned when and how, not if. "Unity is within our grasp," West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told a cheering crowd of East Germans. "We will reach our goal together, facing the future as one."

Kohl made his remarks to a political rally of 100,000 or so in Erfurt. Never before in East Germany's 40-year history had a West German chancellor addressed a public rally.

Kohl's speech, interrupted by chants of "Germany _ our united fatherland," is the first of six major campaign appearances he plans to make before the March 18 East German elections.

He appeared on behalf of the East German Christian Democrats and the recently formed three-party alliance it leads. His presence reflects the growing influence of West German politicians in shaping East Germany's first free elections.

Even Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev now concedes that the two Germanys have a right to unity. But he stresses the Soviet Union's own "inalienable right" to ensure that reunification does not hurt the Soviet Union.

For his part Tuesday, East Germany's leader, Prime Minister Hans Modrow, appealed for immediate reunification talks under a formula worked out with the Allied victors of World War II. Modrow told the East German parliament that his country should not sell itself cheap.

As East Germany's economy crumbles and many of his fellow countrymen flee, he fears that West Germany might dictate the terms of reunification. East Germany "will not enter into a unified Germany as a beggar or wearing a hair shirt," he declared to ringing applause.

Many Europeans, particular Poles, worry that a united Germany may try to expand its boundaries. Both Germanys are bound by treaties to respect the Polish frontier, but a united country would not be, and some conservatives in West Germany have suggested reunification be sought within the 1937 borders. In 1937, one-third of what is now Poland was German territory.

East Germany's Modrow believes the Germanys should issue a statement guaranteeing Poland's western borders. But West German leader Kohl has not yet made a public, unequivocal declaration that he recognizes those frontiers. On Tuesday, West German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher reassured Poland that its boundaries would not be affected by German reunification.

But Genscher stopped short of committing to a treaty on the matter.

Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, for one, has called for a formal peace treaty recognizing the current borders. And in a Soviet newspaper interview to be published today, Gorbachev said a united Germany must respect Europe's current frontiers.

Gorbachev said Germans should decide the form and schedule of reunification, but emphasized that German unity also concerns others.

He noted that there was still no peace agreement between Germany and the four victorious allies in World War II _ Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States. He said it is up to the countries involved to negotiate a treaty that can "finally determine Germany's status in the European structure."

"No one has a right to ignore the negative potential formed in Germany's past, especially as it is impossible to fail to consider people's memory of war, of its horrors and losses," Gorbachev said. "Therefore, it is very important that Germans, deciding the question of unification, should be aware of their responsibility."

Many West Germans have talked of unification before the end of this year. Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze is less sure.

"It requires several years," he said in an interview Tuesday with the Soviet government newspaper Izvestia.

After East Germany's Modrow appealed for immediate talks on reunification, he said preparations should start for a conference of the leaders of the 35 members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the group that produced the Helsinki accords on human rights in the mid-1970s.

Finally, the prime minister said that unification should be linked to "radical disarmament" and troop reductions in Europe.

"There must not be a Germany in NATO," he declared. But West Germany and the Western allies have urged that a united Germany be part of NATO with the provision that no NATO troops would be stationed on the former East German territory.

Last week, the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France agreed with East and West Germany on a two-stage plan for reunification.

In the first stage of what became known as the "2-plus-4" formula, German experts would discuss political, economic and legal steps to unity. In the second, the Germanys would be joined by the Allies to discuss international ramifications.

Last week, West German leader Kohl offered to make the West German currency the coin of both countries and join the two in an economic union.

East Germany's Modrow rejected this. He had been hoping that West Germany would immediately grant East Germany an aid package worth about $9-billion. Kohl apparently wants to hold off sending substantial aid until after East German elections in March. Modrow is not expected to retain his office.

The two Germanys began planning their economic merger Tuesday and officials from both countries said after the first meeting of a joint currency commission that adoption of the West German mark as the money of both countries could come in a month or two.

The offer of monetary union has unsettled many East Germans, who fear their money will be worth little or even nothing.

In his address to parliament, Modrow noted a continuing wave of feverish bank transactions by great numbers of East Germans.

Fearing that their savings would not be exchanged into West German marks at the official, artificial, one-to-one rate but at closer to a market value of one-tenth of the West German currency, account-holders have withdrawn large amounts to buy such goods as are available in the ravaged East German economy.

Many other people have spread their accounts among family members or divided them into several accounts.

The savers have been acting on the assumption that a fixed part of each account will be converted at a favorable rate while the rest will be devalued.

"I would like to ask the citizens of (East Germany) to have faith in the value of their savings accounts," Modrow said. "Honestly earned money should remain in the accounts. There, it will keep its value."

The prime minister also called on the public not to let itself be tempted into panic buying of food in the wake of the announcement of potential price rises. Modrow warned that unless "good sense takes over," the food supply may suffer.

Taken together, talk of an imminent currency union and the participation of West German political parties has left many East Germans grumbling that reunification is, in fact, little more than a takeover by the West.

Some have even used the emotion-laden word Anschluss _ literally "annexation" _ that was used when Hitler took over Austria in 1938.

Many, especially older, East Germans were clearly unsettled by the pace of the push toward reunification.

Asked Sofia Schwartz, a clerk in the Erfurt archive office: "What's going to happen to us?" The question was on many European minds.