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`Gorby's' Popularity

IN assessing West Germans' euphoric response to Mikhail Gorbachev, it's well to remember their history and where they live. Situated on the divide between East and West, hosting foreign armies and nuclear weaponry, the Germans have an immediate interest in peace. They also bear a historical burden, deepening their desire to heal rifts with former enemies and help avoid future conflict.

Mr. Gorbachev, whose policies have softened the image of a country long considered a threat to hopes for peace, plays directly to German interests and emotions. Polls show him to be the most trusted political figure among West Germans.

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But Gorbachev's popularity in the West doesn't mean that all caution concerning Soviet intentions is out the window. Public opinion surveys also indicate most West Germans continue to see a need for NATO forces and even nuclear deterrence. Few question the dominant importance of ties to the United States and to a unifying Western Europe.

Gorbachev frets about the latter entity. He talks glibly of ``our common European home,'' while worrying that a post-1992 Europe may be an exclusive economic club. The hulking Soviet economy, groping toward modernity, is never far from Gorbachev's mind. He hopes Bonn's friendliness will pay off in shared technological and financial know-how.

A lot has been said about the danger of Westerners cozying up to ``Gorby'' and being lured away from security commitments - and such concerns are valid. The Soviet leader, however, braves his own set of dangers by venturing West. Conservatives nipping at his heels back home may grimace over agreements allowing profits made in the USSR to migrate westward. Disgruntled Warsaw Pact hardliners, notably East Germany's Erich Honecker, can't be happy about vaguely optimistic statements about dismantling the Berlin wall when the reasons behind it no longer exist.

Gorbachev continues to redraw the geopolitical map. Others should seize the opportunities to build peace - as have the West Germans - even while remembering that conflict and reversals remain a possibility.

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