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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Leaving the Baltic States

At the end of July a Russian-Estonian agreement concerning the nearly complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Estonia by Aug. 31 was signed. This agreement is the last legal act necessary to bring to an end the Soviet and now Russian military presence in Europe that has lasted nearly 50 years. After Aug. 31, only two small contingents of specialists will remain in the Baltics. One will help deactivate the Russian naval training center at Paldiski near Tallinn and the other will be dismantling the early-warning radar station at Skrunda near Riga.

According to Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, the agreement on troop withdrawals from Estonia -- signed by President Boris Yeltsin and his Estonian counterpart Lennart Meri on July 26 -- will bring an end to a whole complex of problems that began between Russia and the Baltic states as a result of the signing of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939.

The path leading to these recent agreements was both complex and full of drama. However, the new agreements will enable Russia to fulfill completely its pledges to remove all its military forces from Central and Eastern Europe by the end of August. Moreover, the realization of the Yeltsin-Meri agreement could open the door to a significant improvement in the rather complex relations between Moscow and the Baltic states and lead to greater mutual confidence throughout the region.

It is also important to note that the withdrawal of Russian troops from Germany, Latvia and Estonia will also relieve Russia of the burden of the expenses associated with maintaining those troops abroad. Those funds can then be directed toward pulling the economy out of its seemingly permanent stagnation. We can only welcome the return of thousands of former military personnel to constructive work at home, rather than seeing them languish in countries that have no strategic significance for Russia in the post-Cold War world

It was by no means simple to convince Soviet and later Russian military advisers to withdraw the Northwestern Military Group. In December 1991, the military leadership of the U.S.S.R. proposed that it would be expedient not to withdraw the military from the Baltic states, but rather to conclude agreements with them that would allow a certain number of troops and bases to remain in the region until at least the year 2000. They claimed that withdrawal or a serious reduction of forces located in the Baltics "might lead to the most serious consequences for national security on the western front."

Even the new military leadership of Russia in early 1992 came out in favor of withdrawal from the Baltics only after the completion of withdrawals from Germany and Poland. According to the plan then proposed by the Ministry of Defense, only 40 percent of Russian forces in the Baltic states would be withdrawn in the period from 1992 to 1994 and the remaining 60 percent would be gradually withdrawn after 1994.

Now, however, the problem of withdrawing Russian troops has been resolved to the satisfaction of most. The Russian and Estonian presidents were able, in the course of five hours, to settle questions that had vexed diplomats and military experts on both sides for more than three years. Estonian railroad officials now report that the withdrawal of Russian troops and equipment is proceeding rapidly and the work is expected to be completed on Aug. 28.

So, the troops are being withdrawn, but does that mean the end of the long-standing problems between Russia and the Baltic states? Unfortunately, no.

With Latvia, the main question is discrimination against Russian-speaking citizens of the republic, in the wake of a series of policies that has divided the population into first and second-class citizens. Russia is also concerned about the possibility of provocations directed against Russian specialists working at Skrunda.

Russia's main dispute with Lithuania involves defining territorial waters in the Baltic Sea and settling the question of overland transit between Russia and the Russian port of Kaliningrad. This dispute is now so bitter that local authorities in Kaliningrad are seeking new trade routes through Belarussia and Poland.

Russia's relations with Estonia are currently hung up on the issue of social security for the approximately 10,000 retired military personnel and their families living there, as well as continued uncertainty about the border between the two countries. The Russian government is particularly concerned about a recent statement by Estonian authorities that residence permits will only be granted to former Soviet military personnel who do not present a threat to the republic's security, and that, further, virtually all such people are considered a priori to present such a threat.

One fantastic scenario for the development of relations in the future calls for the introduction of Russian peacekeeping forces in order to protect the interests of the Russian-speaking populations of the Baltic republics. A number of the most rabidly nationalist figures on Russia's political scene today are already openly discussing such a possibility.

Of course, this scenario is not in the interests of Russia, the Baltic states or the world community. However, the world should not allow the situation to deteriorate to the point that such a scenario becomes attractive to more respectable politicians.

As the last Russian troops leave the Baltic states, there must be a parallel regularization of the problems that are threatening relations in the region. Only this will, once and for all, defuse and deactivate the landmine about which Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev has warned us.

Vladimir Kozin is a Moscow-based foreign policy commentator. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.