U.S. officials, who last month were highly skeptical of East German leader Egon Krenz's willingness to yield to democratic pressures, are now hopeful that his relaxed travel policy will be the first step in a series of broader reforms.
"We've had some promising indications, namely the announced intention by the authorities to liberalize foreign travel," White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. "We hope that this is a beginning step in the road to reform, which will take into account the desires of the East German people."
However, Bush Administration officials are uncertain about how far Krenz will go and say there are no assurances that he will allow the unprecedented political and economic reforms recently seen in Poland and Hungary.
"I'm still skeptical because of the past track record," said one Administration official on Monday, referring to Krenz's background as chief of the state security apparatus. He described Krenz as coming out of "the mold of the old hard-liners."
But, the official added, "he has certainly said the right things and has done some of the right things."
In the three weeks since Krenz took the reins in East Germany, anti-government demonstrations calling for democracy have erupted almost daily in cities throughout the nation, and the suddenly relaxed travel restrictions have resulted in tens of thousands of refugees emigrating to the West.
The exodus led the State Department to take the unusual step of saying it would assist West Germany if it needs help in coping with the influx.
"If the Germans were to ask us, we would certainly give full and sympathetic consideration to anything they thought we could do to help," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Fitzwater called on the Krenz government "to undertake a constructive dialogue with the East German people." Others at the White House expressed uncertainty about what course Krenz would follow.
"It's too early to make a good judgment," said one official. "He's riding the tiger by the tail," trying to deal with the upheaval "without appearing in violation of human rights norms."
As for their previously dim expectations for Krenz, officials were reluctant to express surprise, particularly when weighed against all the other changes that have taken place in Eastern Europe this year.
The word surprise no longer has any meaning in the region, the White House official said.
"They'll probably be dancing in the streets of Albania pretty soon," he said, in a pointed reference to the extremely secretive Communist state on the Adriatic that is considered the least likely to be touched by reforms.
Against the background of change, President Bush has begun briefings in preparation for his December meetings with Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Bush conferred over the weekend at Camp David, Md., with officials from the National Security Council staff, the State Department and the CIA in the first of a series of discussions he will have on East-West relations.
Times staff writer Robert C. Toth contributed to this story.