AFTER five decades of defending the once-mighty Soviet empire, former Red Army troops in the Baltic states of Latvia and Estonia will close another chapter in cold-war history on Aug. 31, when they make the final retreat back home to Russia.
The last day of August is the official deadline for the Russian soldiers to withdraw from the two tiny nations. But almost all the 2,400 troops left behind in Estonia and the 10,000 who remained in Latvia as of July had already pulled out several days earlier, according to Latvian and Estonian officials.
``The main significance is that along with the troops being removed from Germany, the withdrawal closes the Second World War and brings it finally to an end after 50 years,'' says John Eickmanis, chief policy planner for Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis. ``For a lot of people, it still comes as an enormous surprise that the Russians will actually leave. I think many people expected them to be here for eternity.''
Celebrations, including rock concerts and open-air festivals, are planned Sept. 1 throughout all three Baltic states including Lithuania, which no longer has Russian troops on its territory. The three countries were forceably annexed into the Soviet Union in 1940, and when they gained independence from Moscow in 1991, about 150,000 Soviet troops remained on their soil.
The historic pullout, along with the simultaneous withdrawal Aug. 31 of Russian troops from eastern Germany, will help Russia's tarnished global reputation. Russian President Boris Yeltsin will bid adieu to the German troops in Berlin along with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and together they will see off the Western allies a week later.
But lingering problems between Russia and its Baltic neighbors remain, and their fragile relations will not dramatically improve until they are solved, despite the departure of the last Russian soldier.
Russian nationalists are angry that agreement on troop withdrawal from Estonia was reached only after the United States threatened to withdraw aid unless the pullout was completed on time. They say Russia never gained complete assurances that the rights of Estonia's large Russian-speaking minority will be secured, and they also object to Latvia's citizenship laws, which make it extremely difficult for ethnic Russians to qualify for Latvian citizenship.
``They were in such a hurry to withdraw the troops that they are violating human rights. The pullout is a humiliation for Russia,'' says Eduard Kovalyov, a spokesman for the Russian Communist Party. ``They did it because they were pressured into it, especially by the American Senate.''
``There is a very strong double standard of Western policy toward Russia, and I think the Russian troops must stay until the moment the human rights of our compatriots are guaranteed,'' echoes hard-liner Oleg Rumantsyev, who sided with former Vice President Alexander Rutskoi during the October 1993 uprising against President Yeltsin, and is now a legal expert to the State Duma's Committee on Legislation. ``They are practicing ethnic cleansing against us.''
But Juri Kahn, Estonian ambassador to Moscow, says all the nationalist whining is absurd. ``The accusations of ethnic cleansing are ridiculous. They are just inside political games,'' he says. ``We are satisfied with the troop withdrawal, which signifies our long-awaited freedom from Russian occupation.''
Pavel Felgengauer, military observer for the Russian daily newspaper Segodnya, says Russia had years to prepare mentally for the Baltic pullout. ``The military sort of wrote off the Baltics several years ago already. They knew it was inevitable, and the Russian military does not fight against inevitabilities,'' he says. But problems such as a lack of housing for returning soldiers are straining Russia's tight military budget.
Even when the troops are gone, their bitter legacy remains.
The Baltic countries still have to deal with the extreme ecological damage caused by the Russian soldiers. While some former Red Army bases will be turned into bases for fledgling Baltic armies and airports, others are unusable.
Some Baltic coastal areas and once-pristine forests are deeply scarred, littered with unexploded bombs and mines. Many bases have been stripped clean by the departing soldiers, who left behind only rotting garbage and hundreds of pet dogs and cats, which they deserted in their hurry home.
Tempers could also flare in the future over Latvia's Skrunda radar base and Estonia's Paldiski nuclear-submarine training facility, which Russia has been allowed to rent short term. Some Russian politicians are already saying they will demand compensation for the facilities once they become Baltic property.
Retired teacher Alexei Bratov, who attended an Aug. 29 demonstration in support of the Russian Communist Worker's Party, said he doubts the Baltic countries will be content to just rent nuclear facilities from Russia.
``The withdrawal is a threat to Russia. The Baltics will now try to join NATO,'' he said as protesters waved Soviet flags and carried photographs of Lenin and Stalin. ``Eventually, the Baltics will have their own peacekeeping troops in Russia, which will try to take control over all our nuclear objects.''