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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Estonia, Russia Agree On Troop Pull-Out

The presidents of Estonia and Russia cut through months of disagreement and distrust Tuesday to sign a historic agreement that guarantees the withdrawal of all the remaining Russian troops from the Baltic States by the end of August.


Presidents Lennart Meri of Estonia and Boris Yeltsin of Russia agreed at talks in the Kremlin that the estimated 2,000 Russian troops in Estonia would be pulled out by Aug. 31. Both sides had agreed on the date earlier but Yeltsin alarmed the Estonians and Western opinion earlier this month when he said Moscow would not keep to it.


The two sides said Tuesday they had overcome the main stumbling blocks to progress, the status of some 10,000 retired Russian military officers in the Baltic republic and the status of the nuclear submarine center at Paldiski.


Meri, reluctant to give details of the agreement, nonetheless said that the promise of withdrawal marked a new phase in the history of his country, which won independence from the Soviet Union in 1992.


"For Estonia, it has a symbolic meaning in the sense that (the Russians) leaving Estonia on the last day of August will mean the last consequences of World War II are eliminated in Estonia," Meri told a press conference.


The accord means that all the Baltic nations are scheduled to be free of what they regard as "occupying forces" by the end of the summer. Russia and Latvia signed a similar accord in May which guarantees the pullout of all Russian troops from Latvia also by Aug. 31. The last Russian troops were withdrawn from Lithuania last summer. Both the Estonian and Russian presidents acknowledged that the talks, which overran their schedule by several hours, had been difficult, but glowed with satisfaction at the outcome.


Yeltsin said proudly that the Estonian and Russian heads of state had succeeded where lower-level meetings had failed."Today, we only managed to agree because of two wise presidents," he said on Russian television.


Meri refused to be drawn on the substance of the pensioners' agreement, but said that existing Estonian legislation would not have to be changed and there was no question of any of the retired officers being forced to leave.


Russia has complained that the military officers were being denied full residence rights, while Estonia said the pensioners, who settled in the Baltic republic after its annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940, had been involved in organized repression and comprised a potential fifth column.


Meri said a deal over the Paldiski nuclear facility had not been finalized but could be agreed on as soon as Wednesday by the Estonian and Russian foreign ministers. The Baltic countries have been pressing for as rapid as possible a demilitarization of the facility, which they say is an environmental hazard.


Several outstanding problems remain between the two countries. Moscow is still worried about the rights of some 300,000 Russian speakers in Estonia, who have not won Estonian citizenship and who it says are deprived of civic rights; and both countries have taken a firm stand on a territorial dispute over land in the Pskov region of Russia that Tallinn says is historically Estonian.


Tuesday's meeting was engineered by U.S. President Bill Clinton, who won a pledge from Yeltsin to meet his Estonian counterpart face-to-face at the summit of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations in Naples earlier this month.


It also came in the wake of a vote by the U.S. Senate to suspend an aid bill to Russia if Moscow did not keep to the August withdrawal schedule. The vote was widely condemned in Russia and welcomed in the Baltic region as a lever of pressure on the Kremlin.


Meri said Tuesday's agreement meant that Estonia was firmly becoming established as a European nation.