Still Bitter Toward Russia, Estonia Reluctant to Nourish Vital Economic Cooperation
TALLINN, ESTONIA — IN an out-of-the-way corner of this city's renovated Old Town, tucked among the Protestant church spires and narrow cobblestone alleys, lies a cluster of ruins. Behind a chain-link fence around the site, a sign reads: "On March 9, 1944, bombs dropped by the Soviet Air Force killed 453 people, wounded 659, and left 20,000 people homeless."
It has been almost a year since Estonia - and its Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Latvia - regained independence. But as the macabre memorial indicates, the emotional wounds caused by the Baltic nation's involuntary incor- poration into the Soviet Union run deep in Estonia. And they won't heal easily.
These days many Estonians hold Russia, always considered here a synonym for the Soviet Union, responsible for impoverishing their country. The nation of 1.6 million would be thriving today, they say, if its economy had not been saddled with central planning from Moscow.
The anger that served as a motivational tool in the Baltics' drive to break away from the Soviet Union, however, now threatens Estonia's effort to revive a market economic system.
In Estonia, hard feelings on both sides appear to have penetrated almost all aspects of Tallinn's relations with Russia. "Russians still consider Estonia to be a province," says Estonian government councilor Aimar Altosaar.
Experts say stable relations with Russia would greatly ease hardships in Estonia, as the Baltic nation begins painful economic reforms. But instead of smoothing relations, Estonia seems intent on provoking Russia.
Disputes over the withdrawal of Russian troops, and discrimination against Estonia's sizable ethnic Russian minority, have become substantial obstacles to improved relations.
Many Estonians are preoccupied with the continued the Russian Army presence in the Baltics. Udo Helme, a government consultant with Estonia's National Defense Board, argues that the Baltic states cannot be considered truly independent until the "occupation Army" has left.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, under pressure from Western leaders, gave assurances the approximately 130,000 Russian troops in the Baltics would be withdrawn. But he failed to provide a precise timetable, citing Russia's budget problems and a lack of adequate housing.
"We just can't pull out 100,000 troops and leave them in the middle of a field," Mr. Yeltsin said, indicating the process could take up to two years.
But Mr. Helme asserts that the Russians are stalling, saying five months is more than enough time for the estimated 23,000 troops in Estonia to leave. "In 1940, they had no problems in deploying 100,000 troops in Estonia in only 10 days," he said.
While Estonians say they are wary of Russian nationalism, recent moves by Tallinn appear to have heightened nationalist passions in Moscow. On July 1, for example, strict border controls were introduced and Russians were required to obtain visas to visit Estonia. Many Russians are now clamoring for reciprocal measures against Estonians.
But more important to Russians, especially those living in Estonia, are the stringent citizenship requirements contained in the Estonian Constitution. Most of the 600,000 Russians in Estonia, about 33 percent of the republic's population, moved to the republics after 1940, and thus are ineligible to obtain citizenship. Knowledge of Estonian is another citizenship condition many Russians can't meet.
THE Constitution, ap-proved last month, has the Russians worried about their future. Non-citizens are forbidden to join Estonian political parties. And as the government launches a privatization effort, many Russians fear they will be excluded from buying their homes.
Government officials insist the rights of non-citizens will be protected. But many defend the citizenship regulations, saying the Russians are essentially "colonialists."
Some Russians are beginning to organize in the face of perceived discrimination, establishing, for example, a so-called parliament of Slavic peoples in Estonia. Northeastern Estonia, which has a 95 percent Russians population, is developing into a hotbed of anti-Estonian sentiment. "I'm afraid another Dniester is developing here," says Mr. Barabaner of the Russian Democratic Movement.
According to Vladimir Andreyev, a city councilor in the Russian populated city of Narva, separatist sentiment among Russians currently is low. But, he added, "the tendency is growing.
A tendency toward confrontation seems to be brewing among some Estonians as well. Already an Estonian radical group, called the Forest Brothers, has staged an ambush of a Russian Army convoy. Nobody was wounded in incident July 10 near the Estonian city of Haapsalu, the Tass news agency said.
"There's enough common sense on both sides to avoid a conflict," said Mr. Andreyev. "But an uncontrollable explosion is still possible."