President Yeltsin's announcement also aroused concern at Nato headquarters, where a spokesman said the Western alliance believed the withdrawal should go ahead without delay.
In a decree issued on Thursday night, Mr Yeltsin said he was 'profoundly concerned over numerous infringements of the rights of Russian-speakers' in the region. The withdrawal of troops would be halted until Russia had signed treaties with the three republics, regulating the withdrawal and guaranteeing 'measures of social protection' for the soldiers and their families.
In what amounted to a veiled threat to squeeze the Baltic economies, he also said Russia would not implement economic agreements with the three states until their governments met his conditions. The Baltic countries have already been severely affected by a Russian decision to make them pay world prices for oil and other energy supplies.
Until the collapse of Communism last year, more than 120,000 Soviet soldiers were stationed in the Baltic states, which have a combined population of just over 8 million. About two in five of those troops have already been withdrawn.
President Yeltsin's decree went further than a Russian Defence Ministry statement of 20 October, which said that a temporary pause in troop withdrawals was necessary because of difficulties in providing homes in Russia for the returning soldiers. Although this is undoubtedly a problem, with tens of thousands of troops having recently come back from eastern Europe and Mongolia, the President struck a different note by linking the withdrawal explicitly to the Baltic states' treatment of ethnic Russians.
In doing so, he appeared to be motivated partly by a desire to steal some of the clothes of his conservative opponents in Russia, including nationalist members of his own administration like the Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi. They have put Mr Yeltsin on the defensive by contending that he has done too little to protect the 25 million Russians who live in other republics of the Commonwealth of Independent States. Military officers want tougher action to defend Russian soldiers and civilians in countries such as Georgia, Azerbaijan, Moldova and Tajikistan where ethnic conflicts are raging.
The Baltic states were independent from 1918 to 1940, when they were annexed by the Soviet Union. They regained independence last year after the failed August coup, but in the intervening 50 years hundreds of thousands of Russians emigrated to the states, diluting native populations.
The impact of the emigration was strongest in Estonia and Latvia, which immediately after recovering independence introduced citizenship laws discriminating against Russians who had arrived after 1940. In Estonia, Russians and other minorities make up about 40 per cent of the population but very few were entitled to vote in the republic's recent elections.
The Russian deputy defence minister, Boris Gromov, said yesterday the withdrawal of Russian troops and equipment from the Baltic states could take up to seven years, according to the Itar- Tass news agency. Mr Gromov's forecast is even worse than that of Mr Yeltsin, who has indicated all troops could be pulled out of the Baltic by 1994.
Mr Gromov said the Baltic states' refusal to allow deployment of fresh recruits from Russia to help with dismantling of equipment was slowing the operation.
In a statement on the suspension of Russian troop withdrawals Nato said it viewed Mr Yeltsin's decision as 'a matter for concern'.
A spokesman said the alliance appreciated that Moscow had practical problems in withdrawing the troops but added: 'At the same time, we consider it important that there should be no delay in implementing . . . completion of the overall withdrawal process.'Reuse content