PRESIDENT Boris Yeltsin held a Kremlin summit July 26 with his Estonian counterpart Lennart Meri, part of a last-ditch effort to negotiate Russian troop withdrawal by the end of August and salvage increasingly rocky relations between Russia and its tiny Baltic neighbor.
By late afternoon, it appeared the two presidents would finally resolve the dispute over when and how the Russian troops would leave Estonia. Riina Kionka, chief of policy planning at the Estonian Foreign Ministry, said that the two men were moving to sign an agreement that could put the issue to rest.
The latest bilateral talks ended in failure late Monday after the deputy foreign ministers of each country refused to concede on any issues. Similar talks between Vitaly Churkin of Russia and Estonia's Raul Malk last week in Helsinki also proved fruitless.
``That meeting turned out to be a fiasco. The Russians did not come up with any serious ideas, and their tone was quite arrogant,'' said Ms. Kionka in an interview. ``It was clear they were not interested in any constructive dialogue.''
Russia last week said it was halting the agreed pullout of some 2,400 former Red Army troops still stationed in Estonia, saying Tallinn had not provided social guarantees to the country's estimated 300,000 ethnic Russians. President Yeltsin later announced the troops will remain until those rights are secured.
Moscow seeks aid for citizens
Russia is demanding that Estonia provide military pensions to the roughly 10,000 retired Red Army officers residing within its borders and relax its strict citizenship requirements, which Russian officials say is discriminatory and have likened to apartheid.
But Estonia has balked at the demands, saying Russia fabricated discrimination charges to win favor with nationalists at home and that many of the retired officers were former KGB or military intelligence officers.
``Russians must accept that it is their task to take these people back,'' says Juri Kahn, Estonia's Ambassador to Moscow. ``We are very concerned about foreign troops staying in Estonia, as we understand that it's a great danger for Estonian independence. Nobody wants to face a situation like Yugoslavia or Abkhazia.''
Ivan Rybkin, the speaker of the Russian parliament, on July 26 said Russia would consider imposing economic sanctions against Estonia. But it is unclear whether sanctions would have any effect. Russia agreed to withdraw all its troops from the three former Soviet Baltic states after they received independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The three small nations were forceably annexed in 1940 and remain deeply suspicious of Russia.
Partial withdrawal complete
No Russian soldiers remain in Lithuania, and Russia has agreed to pull its estimated 10,000 troops from Latvia by Aug. 31 in return for renting the Skrunda radar station, formerly under Soviet Army jurisdiction. Last week, under pressure from both Russia and the West, Latvia's parliament amended a controversial citizenship law which effectively precluded the country's large Russian minority from becoming citizens.
``Estonian laws are liberal enough as they are,'' Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar said Monday, according to Interfax. ``Russia should realize that it will not force us to sign treaties similar to that with Latvia.''
Washington has helped accelerate the Baltic pullout by giving Russia millions of dollars to dismantle military installations and build homes for departing Russian officers. President Clinton visited the Latvian capital of Riga earlier this month in advance of the Naples Group of Seven summit, and later the US Senate passed a resolution threatening to cut off aid to Russia unless the pullout is completed by the Aug. 31 deadline.
``Should, God forbid, the entire Congress and the administration embark on this path chartered by the Senate, this would only complicate and make more difficult our decision on the withdrawal of troops,'' Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev said on television July 24.
Another sticking point is the former Soviet Army Paldisky nuclear submarine training facility near Tallinn. According to Kionka, Russia insists on a ``Skrunda approach'' to rent the facility. But Estonia wants Russia to pull out its nuclear fuel rods by the end of August, and remain until year's end only to complete civilian cleanup operations.
``In Helsinki, the Russians handed over a list of 52 auxiliary building objects they would like to have at Paldisky, including things like kindergartens, beer kiosks, banks and summer cottages, all things that suggest they would like to stick around for a while,'' Kionka said. ``If that kind of facility stays on, we cannot regard troop withdrawal to have ended by Aug. 31.''
In mid-July, bilateral relations worsened when several Estonian officials, including President Meri and Prime Minister Laar, officially greeted a gathering of former Nazi war veterans. ``On the one hand, German SS members who collaborated with Hitlerites are being glorified. On the other, people who sacrificed their lives fighting fascist Germany are being persecuted,'' Yeltsin spokesman Anatoly Krasikov told the Monitor. ``It's not just a violation of human rights, but a dangerous [policy] line.''