Estonia Unruffled by Move To Suspend Troop Pullout

Both Russia and Estonia play down statements linking troop withdrawal with the issue of the rights of the Russian minority

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

OFFICIALS of this tiny nation are reacting coolly to the announcement last week of a halt in the withdrawal of Russian troops from the three Baltic republics.

"We are taking this very calmly and very peacefully," Prime Minister Mart Laar, whose conservative coalition took office last month, told the Monitor in an exclusive interview in his elegant parliament office. "We are interested in negotiations with the Russian government."

Estonian officials, like their counterparts in Lithuania and Latvia, view the statement issued by Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Oct. 29 as part of the Russian leader's combat with his own opposition, led by former Communists and extreme nationalists.

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"His statement was mostly influenced by an internal Russian political fight," Premier Laar says. Both sides try to use the "Baltic card," he explains, claiming to be standing up for the rights of Russian military men stationed in the Baltics and for the substantial Russian-speaking minority. Yeltsin's declaration indirectly tied troop withdrawal to the improvement of "social conditions" of soldiers as well as complaints that the Russian minority had been deprived of their civil rights.

The Estonian leaders' caution, a stance mirrored in the other Baltic states, is dictated in part by their sense that Yeltsin and the Russian Foreign Ministry are a better partner for resolving these problems than their opponents.

"As long as we have this Yeltsin government and this foreign minister, this could be one of the best governments we may ever have in Russia," says Foreign Minister Trivimi Velliste. The minister held talks here on Tuesday with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vitali Churkin. The Russian official said there was no linkage between troop withdrawal and the issue of the rights of the Russian minority, saying Russia is still interested in reaching agreements with all Baltic states on a final date for withdrawa l. Mr. Churkin later blamed unnamed persons in the president's staff for badly drafting the statement to create that impression.

Last year, when the Baltic states achieved independence after 50 years of Soviet occupation, about 130,000 Soviet troops were still stationed on their soil. The US State Department estimates that about 40 percent have since left, although a formal agreement for complete withdrawal by next summer has been reached only with Lithuania.

Estonian officials point out that despite the lack of an agreement, Russian withdrawal is going on. The force levels have dropped dramatically from about 30,000 a year ago to around 11,000 now, officials say. In large part this is driven by the increasing costs of keeping forces here following Estonia's introduction of its own currency last June, a move that forces Russia to pay in dollars rather than rubles for maintaining its Army here.

"I don't think there will be any practical results," of the Yeltsin statement, Laar says. "They are leaving because they just don't have enough money to be here." He claims the Russian Army is also divided on this issue, and many officers favor withdrawal. "The part of the Army that stays in Estonia was quite shocked by the statement, because most of them are ready to leave," he says. "They understand now that they are in a foreign country which looks on them as an occupying army. We are not mistreating the soldiers, but they feel what we are thinking about them."

Estonian officials also are sensitive to charges that the Russian minority, of 475,000 in a country of only 1.6 million, also feels less than welcome. Estonia and Latvia, which both have significant Russian minorities, have enacted citizenship laws which do not grant automatic citizenship to nonnationals. In both cases, Russians must apply for citizenship, meeting residency requirements and demonstrating a minimal knowledge of the language.

The historical circumstances of the Russian population's presence is a sensitive one here. They arrived after World War II as a consequence of Soviet occupation, often as part of a deliberate strategy of control. "Many of these people," Foreign Minister Velliste says of the Russians, "had something to do with the KGB, the military establishment, or worked in huge military plants. This was not typical migration as in the Western context."

Nevertheless, the new Estonian government is taking steps to soften the law, at least partly in response to international criticism. Some 40,000 Russians who applied for citizenship before February 1990 will receive it without a language test, for example. And children born and schooled here can apply without the one-year waiting period (two years residence is also required).

Mr. Velliste says they are also willing to consider granting citizenship to all those born in Estonia, which would affect 172,000 Russians. But he warns that such a move cannot come as a result of Russian pressure or with the continued presence of Russian troops.

"The safer Estonians feel about their independence, the more convinced they are that no one will enslave them again, the more likelihood they will be more generous," he says.

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