Major urges the Balts to go slowly

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The Prime Minister, John Major, yesterday sought to reassure the Baltic states that the West stood firmly behind them. However, he urged them not to run before they could walk in their bid to join the European Union and Nato.

During a brief visit to the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, Mr Major congratulated the three nations on their progress since regaining independence three years ago and welcomed the agreement reached with Moscow on the final pullout of Russian troops from Latvia and Estonia by the end of this month.

To the slight disappointment of his hosts, Mr Major would not be drawn into condemning the concentration of a large number of forces in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad or calling for the region's demilitarisation. 'No one is in any doubt that Kaliningrad is Russian territory,' said Mr Major. 'The important thing now is to make sure that there is a proper transit agreement (for Russian troops) in place.' Lithuania says 100,000 Russian troops are in Kaliningrad, which borders on Lithuania and Poland. Vilnius is reluctant to let them travel through Lithuania.

Despite the agreement to pull all remaining troops out of Latvia and Estonia, the Baltic states remain sceptical of Moscow's intentions. Asked what would happen in the event of an attack, Mr Major said: 'Western countries would certainly feel very strongly about maintaining the independence of the Baltic states'. He dismissed the suggestion of an attack as a 'doomsday scenario'.

The Baltic states have signed up for Nato's Partnership for Peace programme, which they hope will be a forerunner to full membership. They hope to conclude association agreements with the European Union as a prelude to joining. Mr Major warned: 'It is a very competitive world inside the EU and one has to prepare oneself or else the Baltic economies will suffer.' Britain would extend export credits to Lithuania and increase spending on its Know How Fund projects in the Baltics.

Mr Major confirmed that Britain would maintain its support for a recently formed Baltic peace- keeping battalion, which has been receiving infantry training and English language instruction.