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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin's Berlin Visit Marks End of an Era

BERLIN -- President Boris Yeltsin heads for Berlin to oversee the final farewell Wednesday of the former Soviet troops who for almost half a century helped keep Germany divided and communism alive in the east.


The ceremony will be a staid and solemn one, reflecting the difficulty for both Germans and Russians of celebrating the Soviet Union's role in preserving a system which neither now adheres to.


There is no place in Wednesday's schedule for the upbeat military tattoo with which the Western wartime Allies -- the United States, France and Britain -- will be given a rousing send-off from west Berlin a week later.


Instead, there will be a wreath-laying and march-past in east Berlin's Treptow park, where a 12-meter statue of a caped soldier holding a German girl on his arm commemorates Soviet losses in conquering Nazi Berlin and eastern Germany at the end of World War II in 1945.


Security will be tight and there will be none of the big, cheering crowds who have accompanied a succession of Allied departure ceremonies this year.


There will also be a wreath-laying at the Neue Wache, Germany's new national memorial to its enemies' war-dead as well as its own, and to civilian victims of war including the millions of Jews and others murdered in concentration camps.


There will be little if any reference during the ceremonies to the Soviet Union's imposition of communist rule in East Germany and the attempt to force West Berlin into submission with a blockade in 1948-49.


That blockade cast the Soviet Union as Cold War enemy of the Western Allies, and the airlift which kept the city alive and free made the Allies into heroes for Germans and, above all, West Berliners.


What followed was a military standoff across the two halves of Berlin and of Germany which lasted until German unification in 1990.


But German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has made clear he feels a debt of gratitude to the Soviet army, now under Russian control, and is determined to give it a dignified send-off.


The same army which in 1961 stood by to quell any revolt as the Berlin Wall was being built to stop East Germans fleeing westwards did not step in in 1989 as that same wall fell, bringing down the communist Iron Curtain with it.


It has also more than honored a promise made in the so-called Two-Plus-Four Agreement of 1990, which ended the post-war allied occupation of Berlin, by leaving eastern Germany four months ahead of schedule. In the process it has carried out one of the biggest peacetime troop movements in history, pulling out 546,000 soldiers, families and civilian staff, together with 12,400 tanks and armored vehicles, 3,700 artillery systems and 677,000 tons of ammunition.


Bonn contributed over 14 billion Deutsche marks ($9 billion) to the pullout. In gratitude for the Russians' efficiency, it has chosen to play down what may be an even bigger expense -- the tens of billions of marks likely to be needed to repair ecological damage to the military territory being left behind.