Troop Withdrawal - a Baltic Breakthrough

Pressure from the US helped bring agreement between the presidents of Russia and Estonia

AST Tuesday's unexpected agreement in Moscow on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Estonia by Aug. 31 resolves a major dispute between the two countries. While important details need to be worked out, the treaty will mean that for the first time in five decades, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia will be free from foreign occupation.

``The Estonian government is grateful to the United States for its part in bringing about a resolution to this dispute,'' said Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia's ambassador to the US.

Last week's meeting between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Estonian President Lennart Meri, which led to the troop withdrawal agreement, came after President Clinton urged Mr. Yeltsin to meet with Estonia's leader. ``The meeting between Yeltsin and Meri never would have happened if Clinton hadn't pushed Yeltsin,'' a Russian foreign ministry official said.

Even greater pressure on Moscow to leave Estonia came two weeks ago when the US Senate passed an amendment calling for a halt in American aid to Russia unless Moscow met the Aug. 31 deadline, a date ``originally suggested by the Russians themselves,'' Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, principal sponsor of the amendment, emphasized.

``There is no more-provocative symbol of 50 years of Soviet occupation than the continued presence of these troops'' in Estonia, Senator McConnell said.

The Senate amendment, which would have excluded humanitarian assistance and funds for housing relocated Russian military officers, was approved by a vote of 89 to 8. It came after an embarrassing scene at the end of the Group of Seven summit in Naples last month.

During a joint press conference with Yeltsin July 10, Clinton expressed confidence that Russian troops would be out of Estonia by the end of August. Moments later, Yeltsin contradicted his American counterpart.

``No,'' the Russian leader said, when asked if the troops would be removed by Aug. 31. Yeltsin, at Clinton's urging, did at least agree to meet with Mr. Meri.

Amid numerous foreign-policy problems, the Clinton administration deserves credit for its role in bringing the Estonian and Russian leaders together. More important was the Senate amendment that left Moscow with a choice: withdraw from Estonia by the end of this month, as it had promised to do, or risk souring relations with the US.

While virtually unnoticed in the US, the amendment had drawn an angry response from Russian officials. Vladimir Lukin, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of parliament and former ambassador to the US, called the Senate decision ``either stupid or provocative.'' The lower house of the Russian parliament passed a resolution condemning the Senate's attempt to ``interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states.'' Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, calling the Senate action ``perplexing,'' said that Russia rejected linkage between its troop withdrawal and US aid.

Yet linkage is exactly what Russia had been doing on the troop issue. It had insisted that unless Estonia granted the 10,500 Russian military retirees permanent residence in Estonia, troop withdrawal would be delayed. Russia also criticized the ``very crude violations of human rights'' (Yeltsin's words) that it alleged against the Estonian government. Of Estonia's 1.6 million people, 29 percent are ethnic Russians.

Under the agreement signed last week, Estonia will issue living permits to Russian veterans on a case-by-case basis. Estonia reserves the right to ``refuse permits to those people who threaten Estonian security,'' specifically former military intelligence and KGB officers. Russia is to provide the Estonian government with a list of military pensioners within 30 days. Russia will also pay the retirees their pensions and cover costs for their health insurance.

It is true that the Russian government is under pressure - at times overstated in the West - from nationalists in the parliament to protect the 25 million ethnic Russians living in the other states of the former Soviet Union. It was no coincidence that Tuesday's treaty came after Russia's parliament went on a two-month recess.

Yet a growing number of people in the West and in Russia's neighboring states fear that Moscow is really interested in re-establishing the old Soviet empire. Last week's agreement and Russia's pullout from Estonia will be a significant step toward allaying such concerns.

Three years ago, more than 100,000 Soviet troops were stationed in the Baltics. Last year, Russian soldiers pulled out of Lithuania, and the 4,500 troops remaining in Latvia are to be withdrawn by the end of this month. Implementation of the treaty between Russia and Estonia will complete the pullout of Russian troops from the Baltics. While Estonia and Russia need to iron out details on their accord and finalize an agreement on Russia's withdrawal from the Paldiski nuclear submarine base, Sept. 1 will mark a new chapter in Estonian - and Baltic - history. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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