Freedom bell rings as Russians quit Riga

LATVIANS heard the great bell of Riga cathedral toll yesterday morning, calling them to a service of thanksgiving for the departure of the former Soviet army. The pull-out from Latvia and neighbouring Estonia effectively marks the retreat of the Russian empire from the Baltic region, annexed by Stalin in 1940.

Hardline Latvian nationalists refused to rejoice, since Russia will continue to lease a radar station and military pensioners have been allowed to stay. Public celebrations other than the church service were cancelled by order of the nationalist-dominated Riga city council. 'I think it's a great shame', said Juris, a taxi driver. 'We should have had a big festival that also included the Russian population which is staying on here. It's not their fault that history has washed them up here. I'm not a nationalist. There are good and bad among Russians and Latvians alike. But don't you worry, I shall celebrate, I shall crack open a bottle at home tonight.'

Before the Baltic states regained independence in 1991, the Soviet army deployed about 150,000 men in the three countries. Troops withdrew from Lithuania last year and have trickled out of Latvia and Estonia for months, so that only a few hundred remained to complete the pull-out.

Fyodor Melnichuk, the deputy commander of the former Soviet north-west military district, wished Latvia well. He said his men were leaving without bitter feelings. Many are returning to an uncertain future in Russia.

At the former headquarters of the Russian army the red-and- white flag of Latvia was already flying. The building was closed but a pile of old mattresses, battered suitcases and papers was visible in the yard through a crack in the metal fence.

A nervous Latvian conscript with an Alsatian called a superior when he saw me peeping through the fence. The officer said the building would become the new Latvian Defence Ministry, following renovation.

Latvia is to have an army of 4,000 professionals, supported by conscripts doing one year's military service. 'We are getting help from France, Poland and Swe den,' the officer said. 'Our military band has just been on a visit to France. Maybe they don't march as well as the French yet, but musically they're on top form.'

On the edge of the city, the Voroshilov barracks has reverted to its pre-war Latvian name, the Holy Cross barracks. It will house a battalion of Latvian conscripts from next week. The guard, called Dzintars, said he had orders not to let anyone in. But he told me conspiratorially that the Russians had 'left a right mess'.

Next door, in an army administration building, Nina, a Russian staff member, left a different impression. 'They will say we left everything filthy, but look, we have tidied everything up. OK, the furniture's shabby and the toilets are old, but they are clean. And don't go writing that we left a pile of junk in that corner. It's all going on a bonfire outside.'

Nina has worked as a secretary for the former Soviet army since 1981. Life in Latvia is relatively comfortable and she hopes to get Latvian citizenship through her husband, an ethnic Russian born in Latvia. Her situation is uncertain because of her military connections: 'I might have to go back to Astrakhan (on the Volga in southern Russia). It's very sad.' Latvia is slowly granting citizenship to Russians, who, after 50 years of Soviet rule, make up nearly half of the population. Russians married to Latvians and those who grew up here will have priority under a quota system.

The citizenship issue disappoints local Russians, some of whom stood with Latvians on barricades to demand independence in 1991. They seem prepared to live with the fewer rights, as long as they can work in peace. Igor, a young businessman, said: 'The Latvians are not in such a nationalistic mood now. Before, they wouldn't speak Russian with us, but now they will speak any language in order to conclude a business deal. We're all just trying to survive, to make money. That's the main thing now.'

In yesterday's report the Lat currency was valued at two to the US dollar. Rather, one Lat is worth two dollars.

(Photograph omitted)

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