Inside File: Cash bait for Baltic Russians

VOUCHERS from Uncle Sam are the latest ruse to get Russian troops out of the Baltics. There are an estimated 2,400 active servicemen still in Estonia, whom Moscow has displayed discernible difficulty in withdrawing. In addition, there are some 10,000 - nobody knows the exact figure - 'retired' servicemen. As some of them are under the age of 40, and have long-standing connections with the old KGB in Moscow, they are not reckoned by the Estonians to be all that retired. The Estonians want them out.

Attempts at pressuring Russia have been fruitless so far. Estonia was the home of these Russians, Moscow argued, and they could not be expected to uproot themselves overnight. But at the same time, the last Russian troops are due to be withdrawn from both Latvia and Germany by 31 August this year.

It became clear that Russia would have to be paid to resettle its troops on Russian soil. And so the Estonians enlisted the help of the Clinton administration, which originally offered to pay cash for a resettlement programme. The Estonian government did not like the sound of that, because it provided no guarantee that the troops would actually leave after the money had been disbursed.

So diplomats from Tallinn and Washington came up with the Green Stamp solution. The US would donate 1,000 vouchers towards the resettlement of at least the most senior and potentially mischief-making Russian soldiers. They would be able to redeem the vouchers only when back on Russian soil. Given that they are worth dollars 10,000-dollars 30,000 ( pounds 6,600- pounds 20,000) each, it is hoped that they would provide sufficient hard-currency incentive.

Vitaly Churkin, the Russian deputy foreign minister involved in fruitless negotiations over Bosnia, is now having to fit in the odd Baltic talks on the side to see the voucher scheme through. He was in Tallinn yesterday, after a first meeting with his Estonian counterpart on the margins of the Bosnia talks in Geneva last Saturday.

But this is small beer in the context of Russia's continuing presence in the Baltics. As Mr Churkin held talks in the Estonian capital, Carl Bildt, the Swedish Prime Minister and the most outspoken Western critic of Moscow's refusal to quit the Baltics, was in the Estonian port of Paldiski, inspecting the former Soviet coastal base there. The Russians have not even begun to dismantle the two nuclear reactors in the submarine training centre. Removing the uranium rods would take two months. 'That means there is just enough time; if they do it now, to dismantle the base by the 31 August timetable. But only just,' said one Estonian official.

And, Baltic officials point out, Russia already has free transit through Lithuania; Latvia has granted Russia the right to operate a radar station at Skrunda for a further four years; it has also signed an accord providing social- security guarantees for Russian military pensioners and their families. The Latvians estimate there are some 7,000 Russian troops in Latvia. The accords may well provide a legal basis for staying long beyond the end of August.

It is clear to Baltic diplomats that there is no Russian desire to renounce interests in the Baltic. Estonia, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940, had 475,000 Russians out of a 1.5 million population under the 1989 census. When an Estonian diplomat says 'we would like the world to understand our wish to make Estonia clean of Russia', the Russians retort that they are the subject of racial discrimination. And they are not going to leave.