Latvians still haunted by fears of annexation: Two years after independence, Russian troops remain, writes Adrian Bridge in Riga

ONE evening earlier this year, as Valdis Pavlovskis was clearing his desk at the Latvian Defence Ministry and thinking of heading home, he was handed a message that set his hair on end.

A convoy of more than 20 fully loaded, combat-ready Russian tanks, ostensibly on its way by rail to Kaliningrad, had stopped just outside Riga. 'My immediate thought was: 'Christ, could this be it?' ' he recalled. 'What if those tanks start rolling down off the platforms?'

In the end, Mr Plavoskis, Latvia's Deputy Defence Minister, who had been in charge at the time, sent out a couple of patrol cars to check what the tanks were up to. With an army of fewer than 1,000 men, no heavy artillery and no fighter aircraft, he was hardly in a position to challenge them, had intentions been hostile. Fortunately it was a false alarm, and the train resumed its journey.

'We frequently get such scares,' said Mr Pavlovskis, an American-Latvian who came to Riga early last year to help build up the armed forces. 'With so many Russian forces still in our midst, we can never rest easy.'

The fear of a fresh annexation is embedded in the psyche of Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians, who cannot forget how easily their countries were swallowed up by Stalin in 1940. Many find it unbearable that, nearly two years after independence, there are still Russian troops here. The number has undoubtedly gone down - from 150,000 in 1990 to some 50,000 today - but many Balts feel they will never be free until the last Russian soldier has left.

In Lithuania, that day is fast approaching. According to an agreement struck between Moscow and Vilnius late last year, the Russian pull-out should, barring last minute hiccups, be completed by 31 August.

Latvia and Estonia, in which there are still estimated to be some 30,000 and 8,000 troops respectively, are being made to wait longer. In addition to arguing that there are simply no flats to house returning soldiers back home, Moscow has frequently sought to link the question of troop withdrawals from these countries to what it claims are systematic human rights violations against their large ethnic Russian populations.

To the consternation of Riga and Tallinn, Boris Yeltsin said last October he was suspending troop pull-outs from Latvia and Estonia until the alleged violations ended. He formally linked the two issues again during his summit with Bill Clinton in Vancouver in April.

With many international human rights observers denying the Russian allegations, Latvians and Estonians say such talk is simply a screen to disguise ulterior motives - the desire to hold on to the strategic Baltic territories for as long as possible.

Once the troops have gone the huge task of clearing up the mess they leave behind will begin. The Latvian port of Liepaja has already been turned into a graveyard for former Soviet ships and submarines that have been stripped of all valuable metals and left to rust.

'It is an environmental nightmare,' Mr Pavlovskis said. 'But first we want to get the troops out. Then we will argue about who pays for it.'