The time is ripe for a serious discussion between East and West on improved security arrangements below the superpower level. This is the inevitable conclusion to be drawn from last spring's Libyan bombing of a West Berlin

discotheque and recent tensions between the two Germanies over the influx of refugees from East to West Berlin. An appropriate starting point is East Germany's 74-year-old leader, Erich Honecker, who sits astride a country at the hub of political intrigue in Europe.

Since coming to power more than 15 years ago, Mr. Honecker has proven to be a deft manager of East Germany's political transition from a pariah country into the second most influential member of the Soviet bloc. In recognition of Mr. Honecker's leadership, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev traveled to East Berlin earlier this year to address the 11th Party Congress of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany.Soviet support for East Germany also made it possible for Mr. Honecker to visit China recently. This was the first such formal visit by a Warsaw Pact leader since the collapse of the Sino-Soviet alliance a quarter of a century ago. Mr. Honecker's warm reception in China represents another diplomatic coup for East Germany - and further evidence of Honecker's increasingly important role within the Soviet bloc.

In broader perspective, Mr. Honecker's enhanced visibility reflects his record of unstinting service to the Soviet Union. Since becoming a member of the German Communist party in his native Saarland more than a half century ago, Mr. Honecker has prided himself on his loyalty to Moscow. Heinz Lippmann, a former political associate of Mr. Honecker's and author of the best biography on the present East German leader, relates how stunned Mr. Honecker was upon receiving news of Stalin's death back in 1953.

"It was as if a prop had been removed from his very existence," Mr. Lippmann wrote. The result: When in 1971 the Soviet Politburo decided to depose Walter Ulbricht - Mr. Honecker's long-time boss - that left Mr. Honecker the logical successor. Three Soviet leaders later, the Kremlin continues to derive substantial benefits from its long-term investment.

Like other Eastern European clients, however, Mr. Honecker extends his political ambitions beyond the boundaries of Soviet power - namely West Germany. And within limits, Moscow encourages Mr. Honecker to cultivate Bonn. The result has been an increasing flow of political dignitaries between the two parts of the divided country.

In September 1984, Moscow temporarily halted Mr. Honecker's forward motion by forcing him to cancel a trip - it would have been his first - to West Germany. The tenor of Mr. Gorbachev's remarks through the course of this year suggest indirectly, however, that the Soviets may eventually be prepared to let the East German party boss make that long-awaited trip. Of course, this has been going on since the beginning of this decade.

Along with his 17 million subjects, Mr. Honecker recognizes that Moscow's good will cannot dissolve the stigma of illegitimacy that continues to hover over his Republic. He has the reputation of being a proud man. If true, it must be continually galling for him to realize that nearly 16 years of leadership have not removed the onus he and his party carry for the erection of the Berlin Wall, in whose construction he played the decisive role.

The highest standard of living in East Europe hasn't dissolved it. Nor has his travels to Asia, Mexico, China, and parts of Western Europe.

The legitimacy problem can only be solved at home. Over the long term this will require the dismantlement - by Mr. Honecker or, more likely, his hand- picked successor - of the very handicraft that continues to represent the most important element of his regime's hard-won stability.

Mr. Honecker needs more than just Moscow's support for such a major endeavor. He also needs the good will and assistance of the West as well, including America, in the form of expanded political and economic relations.

But such assistance should not be for free. As a necessary quid pro quo, Mr. Honecker should be encouraged to play a more responsible role in limiting conflict between his regime and the West.

In this sensitive arena, the East German leader's record is at best a mixed one. Mr. Honecker is a strong exponent of intra-German cooperation, be it with Bavaria's leading conservative politician Franz Josef Strauss, or West Germany's quintessential man of the democratic left, former Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Mr. Honecker's desire to collaborate with West Germany has, if anything, been more pronounced during periods of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington. Likewise, Mr. Honecker has attempted selectively to distance

himself from Soviet strategic policies.

In early 1984, for instance, the East German party chief delivered a mild, but no less unprecedented, dissent from Soviet policy when he confessed he was less than "overjoyed" about the deployment of SS-20s on his territory after the collapse of the Geneva negotiations.

But Mr. Honecker has been considerably less cooperative in helping to maintain stability in Berlin - which remains one, if not the most, neuralgic point in East-West security relations.

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