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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Lithuania Dilemma

It is a terrible irony that President Boris Yeltsin of Russia and President Algirdas Brazauskas of Lithuania were supposed to meet in Moscow on the anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which assigned the Soviet Union control over the Baltics.


The highlight of the meeting was to be a signing of a document which would have completed the reversal of the 1939 pact. But the agreement on Russian troop withdrawal from Lithuania was not signed and, as a high-ranking Russian diplomat told me, it is almost impossible to predict when it will be.


This diplomat informed me that, contrary to what we heard from Vilnius, it was Moscow that decided it would not be wise for Brazauskas to come to the Russian capital. The Lithuanian leader, I was told, had little choice but to say publicly that it was his decision not to come.


As my interlocutor at the Russian Foreign Ministry reminded me, the remaining Russian troops will not be withdrawn - no matter how few of them are left - until the agreement is signed. That is how it worked in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, among others, and that is how it will be in Lithuania.


Why the postponement?


The compensation for the damage which Vilnius says that Lithuania suffered under Soviet occupation is a crucial problem. Moscow maintains that is quite prepared to discuss with the Lithuanians the issue of compensation, but only for the period after Jan. 1, 1992, when the Soviet troops which had been stationed in the Baltics for over 50 years became Russia's troops almost overnight.


"We are not responsible for what the Soviets did to Lithuania", Moscow is saying. But is it not Russia which claims to be a direct successor and inheritor of the former Soviet Union? The way the Soviet permanent membership in the U. N. Security Council was kept for Russia is a case in point.


On the other hand, there is some convenient ignorance professed by the Lithuanians. Why will they not take into account the cost of whatever was built, constructed, developed, installed in Lithuania by the Soviet Union in the last half century?


No doubt there is a political will for compromise in both Moscow and Vilnius. Brazauska's draft of the troop withdrawal agreement, which he sent to the Kremlin on May 21, contained not one word about $146 billion in compensation. The draft, as I understand, was approved by Yeltsin, and soon after that a plan was made to meet in Moscow on Aug. 23 and close the deal.


My Foreign Ministry contact was rather blunt in telling me why: "Brazauskas", he said, "is under tremendous pressure from the opposition. We understand that perfectly. But here, in Russia, we have our own opposition. It is a fact of life".


Translation: An agreement signed on the conditions pushed by Vilnius might easily stir up anti-Yeltsin sentiments in the Russian parliament and elsewhere in Russia and will tremendously complicate the fall elections.


There is, of course, a danger in the approach taken by Moscow in Lithuania and, by implication, in the other Baltic states. It may make the West awfully angry. The Western capitals made it abundantly clear to Moscow on many occasions: The Baltics are not to be touched, if you treat them badly we will lean on you.


And they might. The Freedom Support Act, approved by the U. S. Congress in 1992, has a provision which bars or suspends any assistance to Russia - financial, economic or otherwise - if troops are not being withdrawn in absolute accordance with the schedule. This provision was authored, among others, by then Senator Al Gore, now the U. S. vice president.


It would be, I guess, politically shortsighted for him not to insist on fulfillment of the provision even if President Bill Clinton is reluctant to use any sanctions against "my friend, President Yeltsin".


And Gore who, while in the Senate, prided himself on being an expert on foreign policy affairs, is playing, by some inside accounts, an increasingly important foreign policy role in Clinton's White House, sometimes even surpassing, behind the scenes, Anthony Lake, the national security advisor, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.


But there are too many skeptics these days in Moscow, including in the higher echelons of the government, about how useful Western aid and assistance could be. and so threats, hidden or public, might be easily ignored. After all, one could hardly expect to win the fall elections on the slogan: "We need to be helped by the West".


Alexander Shalnev is a foreign policy analyst and columnist for Izvestia.