Baltic leaders warn Russia on troops presence

THE leaders of the three Baltic states yesterday condemned any suggestion that Russia could maintain a military presence in their countries.

In a joint declaration the prime ministers of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia denounced a statement by Andrei Kozyrev, the Russian Foreign Minister, on Tuesday, in which he said Russia had the right to station troops in the former republics of the Soviet Union in order to prevent a 'security vacuum' emerging on its borders.

Although Moscow yesterday said the Baltics were not to be included among those Mr

Kozyrev had in mind, the prime ministers said his statement had been aimed 'directly against the sovereignty' of their countries and was in 'complete disagreement' with Russia's international obligations. Specifically, they called on Russia to honour its commitment to withdraw its last troops - estimated at 15,000 to 20,000 - from Latvia and Estonia by the end of August.

Mr Kozyrev remarks on Tuesday represented a further hardening of Russia's position on what it terms the 'near abroad'. In part trying to steal some of the thunder of the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the government now defines the former Soviet republics as regions of 'vital interest', in which Russian troops can be based. Initial reports of Mr Kozyrev's statement indicated that the Baltic states, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and regained their independence in 1991, were to be included and that troop withdrawals could be slowed or stopped.

In addition to causing fury in Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn, Mr Kozyrev's statement also rang alarm-bells in Washington, where the State Department called for immediate clarification and confirmed its continued support of the Baltic states' independence.

Mari-Ann Rikken, spokeswoman of the Estonian foreign ministry, said Washington's sharp response was one of the main factors behind Moscow's speedy disclaimer that it viewed the Baltic states in the same, increasingly possessive way it sees the Commonwealth of Independent States.

'I think this was a trial balloon,' she said. 'Moscow is constantly testing the waters, seeing how far it can go. If the West does not stand up and say 'Stop]', it will push all the way.'

Although the number of Russian troops stationed in the Baltics is only a fraction of the 150,000 once there, tension remains high. Last week troops in Latvia were put on alert after two Russian generals were arrested by a Latvian official.

Latvia apologised and Moscow dropped the alert. But there was a warning that any more 'incidents' would be met with a tougher response. 'I suppose . . . the panic is off,' said Janis Eichmanis, chief of staff to Latvia's President Guntis Ulmanis, in response to Moscow's latest clarification of its position. 'Today we appear to be safe. But tomorrow it might be different.'

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