Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Sunday that he now believes there is "an excellent chance" that Germany will be reunified before the end of this year, as West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has predicted.
In a television interview, Baker also minimized the importance of recent Soviet objections to having a newly enlarged Germany in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and suggested that over the next few months, Soviet officials may see benefits in such an arrangement.
On Saturday, Valentin M. Falin, a former Soviet ambassador to West Germany and senior adviser to Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, said that "if the Western alliance sticks with its demands for a NATO membership for all of Germany, then there won't be any unification."
But Baker, speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," questioned whether the Soviet Union would stick to that position.
"We're going to have to see the degree to which they really feel that way," he said. "For myself, I'm not sure that they really strongly feel that way, because the NATO alliance is the raison d'etre, if you will, for the presence of American forces in Europe. And I think, without putting words in the mouths of the Soviets, that they see the stability that is afforded by the continued presence of United States forces in Europe."
Last Wednesday, at a meeting in Ottawa, the Soviet Union accepted a plan designed by the United States for talks to work out the details for German reunification.
Under that plan, West and East Germany would conduct an initial round of negotiations on the domestic issues involved in merging the two countries, and the four major World War II Allies--the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union--would then hold a conference to resolve the foreign policy and security problems.
The U.S. plan has drawn some criticism from other European governments, particularly that of Poland, which argues that it should be included in talks on the future of Germany, whose territory used to embrace areas that became part of Poland after World War II.
"I have to say that we feel it is our historic, moral and political right to be a part of those agreements which will be linked to German unification. We have to be sure that any territorial claims will not be raised against Poland," said Poland's ambassador to the United States, Jan Kinast, in an interview on CNN's "Newsmaker Sunday."
West German officials have avoided giving absolute assurances that a united Germany will make no territorial claims against Poland.
"Nobody knows what the new government will do," Horst Teltschik, Kohl's foreign policy adviser, said on CBS's "Face the Nation" on Sunday. "But we are absolutely sure that the great majority of all Germans in East and West will stick to the border as it is today."
"There will be a lot of discussion between now and the event (German reunification)," President Bush told reporters Sunday while walking on a beach near his home in Kennebunkport, Me. "We've got our position, supporting Chancellor Kohl. We know what Kohl's position is. We're going to stay with it."
East Germany will elect a new government March 18, and West Germany will hold national elections Dec. 2. Kohl has been pressing to achieve reunification before the West German elections, in which his Christian Democratic Party will face a strong challenge from the Social Democratic Party.
Asked whether he was optimistic that Germany can be reunified before the end of this year, Baker replied, "I think there's an excellent chance. Unification is taking place as we sit here . . . . There is de facto economic integration, unification, taking place."
However, he asked, "Will we have resolved all of the external questions surrounding German unification at the end of this year? I can't tell you we will."
Baker acknowledged that one of the toughest issues that will have to be settled by the four World War II Allies later this year concerns future military deployments on what is now East German soil. There are about 380,000 Soviet troops in East Germany, and the Allies will have to decide whether or when these Soviet deployments will be phased out.
"What's been discussed so far . . . is that there would be no extension of NATO forces in the territory of the German Democratic Republic," Baker said. But he left open the question of whether German troops might be stationed in that territory.
NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner, who is a former West German defense minister, spoke on the same program with Baker. He said he believes the Soviet Union would accept a new Germany allied with NATO "under one condition--that we give them a clear guarantee that this is not turning against them."