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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Balts to Tell Clinton of Fears

Leaders of the Baltic states will ask U.S. President Bill Clinton to press for a reduction of Russian military presence in the region during his stopover in the Latvian capital Riga on Wednesday. Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian leaders have said recently the states, which regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, are still under threat of expansion from their powerful neighbor. Clinton will be the first U.S. president to visit the Baltics, and he will deliver a major speech in Riga. Despite being swallowed up by the Soviet Union in 1940, the Baltic States were never formally recognized as Soviet territory by the United States. Clinton's visit thus holds symbolic importance as a reminder of U.S. support for Latvian sovereignty during a half-century of Communist rule. Before departing from Washington, Clinton said the United States would not recognize any future Russian "sphere of influence" in Eastern Europe. The Baltic leaders, however, said they still felt Russia was attempting to dominate the region. "The old colonial, expansionist tradition is still strong in Russia," the Estonian President Lennart Meri said. "You cannot build friendly relations with a superpower when it has troops on your territory against your will." About 130,000 ex-Soviet troops have pulled out of the Baltics over the past three years, including all from Lithuania. But another 2,000 are still stationed in Estonia and under 10,000 in Latvia. Algirdas Brazauskas, the president of Lithuania, said the republic was still concerned over the army in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Poland and Lithuania. Demilitarization of the region, where, according to Lithuanian data, between 100,000 and 300,000 troops are stationed, "is a prerequisite for stability in the Baltic area," Brazauskas said. "We would like the U.S. to pay greater attention to this issue." However, a Russian Foreign Ministry official dismissed the fears of the Baltic leaders as groundless, saying there was no military buildup in the region. "There have been temporary increases when troops withdrawn from Germany stopped in Kaliningrad before going on to mainland Russia," said Boris Kirillov, a Lithuania expert at the ministry's second European department. "In fact Russia has fewer troops in Kaliningrad than the maximum allowed by international conventional arms treaties," Kirillov told The Moscow Times. Last month President Boris Yeltsin warned the Baltic states Russia would protect the rights of their Russian-speaking minorities who may be denied local citizenships by national legislators. Clinton will also visit Poland and Germany before going to Naples, Italy, for the annual economic summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations and talks with Yeltsin at the weekend. (AP, Reuters, MT)