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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Last Troops Trickle Out Of Estonia And Latvia

TALLINN, Estonia -- Russian troops are quietly, quickly and sullenly moving out of Estonia and Latvia and should already be gone by the time the deadline for their withdrawal rolls around next Wednesday.

Although the agreed deadline is Wednesday, Aug. 31, the troops could be off as early as Monday or Tuesday. Only the Russians know exactly when they will be gone, and they are keeping a low profile -- which makes planning celebrations complicated.

"It's terrible," joked Indrek Tarand, a chancellor at the Estonian Foreign Ministry, referring to the speed with which the soldiers are pulling out. "They're ruining the holiday for us by not letting us see them off. I would have liked to go wave goodbye, to give them a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of vodka as parting gifts."

Church bells will ring Thursday morning throughout the Baltic states -- including in Lithuania, where the Russian Army pulled out last summer -- marking the region's first full day without Russian troops. Rock concerts are planned in Estonia and Latvia to mark the event.

And Estonian President Lennart Meri, who vowed three years ago not to drink champagne while Russian troops occupied Estonian soil, is expected to make a long-awaited toast.

But the mood in Estonia and Latvia is far less festive than might be expected. There is disagreement over how to celebrate the event -- and whether it ought to be celebrated at all. Mart Laar, 34, the Estonian prime minister who is as well known for his love of the rock band Guns 'n' Roses as for his radical free market reforms, favors wild celebrations.

"I have a bottle of whiskey in a cupboard that's been waiting there for three years. When the troops are gone, I'm going to drink it with my friends," said Laar.

Others call for marking Estonia's freedom with solemn, quiet celebrations in honor of the victims of the Soviet occupation -- an idea that exasperates the boisterous Laar. "I don't think Estonians should strew ashes on their heads or wear sack cloth on this day," he said.

But Laar, the president and the chairman of Estonia's parliament have all canceled receptions announced earlier to mark the withdrawal. In Riga, the town council has vetoed plans to hold a garden party downtown. Estonian newspapers too have called for restraint.

Nationalists in both countries are furiously resisting efforts to portray the withdrawal as a day of triumph for the Baltics.

The last Russian tank left the Baltics two weeks ago, and most of the heaviest military hardware is either gone or already loaded onto trains and waiting to go. Where once about 150,000 Russian troops were quartered throughout the Baltics, only about 1,200 remain in Estonia and fewer than 1,000 in Latvia.

But under the withdrawal deals struck with Moscow, 600 Russian soldiers will remain in control of Latvia's Skrunda radar station for five more years, and 210 Russian "specialists" will remain at Estonia's Paldiski nuclear submarine base for another year.

Opposition nationalists in the two countries are unhappy about that, and also about concessions Moscow received to allow thousands of retired Russian military officers to stay on in the Baltics. The nationalist party members question the loyalties of those ex-officers, whom they see as a potential fifth column.

"Fifty years ago it was Hitler and Stalin. Now, it is the West and Boris Yeltsin who are cutting deals over other people's destinies," complained an editorial in The Baltic Independent. "Until both Skrunda and Paldiski are completely empty, it will be frighteningly easy for the Kremlin to claim that its men or their families are being 'provoked' or 'menaced,' and that their security must be 'reinforced.'"