No real joy as Russian troops pull out of Latvia

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The Independent Online
THE LAST regular Russian troops will leave Latvia today but festivities planned to mark their departure have been cancelled as hardline Baltic nationalists believe there is nothing to celebrate.

Because 600 military specialists will stay on at the Skrunda radar base which Russia is leasing from Latvia for the next five years, and because military pensioners are being allowed to live out their last years in the republic, the radical Movement for National Independence (MNI) sees 31 August as a day of mourning rather than victory.

'Four open-air concerts were planned,' the government spokesman, Guntis Sherbinskis, said wistfully, 'but the Riga City Council cancelled them.' The council is dominated by members of the MNI while the government, led by the centrist Latvian Way party which negotiated the pull out deal with Moscow, is weakened by a crisis over agricultural reform.

So in the rainy streets of Riga, not even a string of bunting has gone up to mark the final freeing of the Baltic states from Moscow's grip. This morning there will be a service of thanksgiving in the cathedral and President Guntis Ulmanis will receive Fyodor Melnichuk, deputy commander of the former Soviet North-west Military District, to say goodbye and that will be it.

The Russian soldiers should go quietly. They usually do, once they have promised to retreat. They made no trouble leaving Afghanistan in 1989. Most of them have already left the Baltic states anyway. Three years ago there were 150,000 former Soviet troops in the region. Last summer Lithuania waved goodbye to its 'guests'. Latvia and neighbouring Estonia are now down to about 1,000 men each. In Tallinn, celebrations marking the departure will be as low-key as here.

Some Riga residents, such as Mara, an engineer, approved of the City Council decision. 'We can't celebrate as long as the Russians stay at Skrunda,' she said. 'It's not really a problem with Yeltsin in power in Moscow, but what if someone like Zhirinovsky takes over? The Russians could easily use Skrunda as an excuse to come back.' But others felt the nationalists were being killjoys and missing an opportunity. 'I stood on the barricades for Latvian independence in 1991,' said Viktor, an ethnic Russian who was born here. 'I would like to have seen a huge street party launch a new era.'

For most Russians, who make up about half of the republic's population, the lack of celebrations is the least of their worries.

'I don't feel any less secure because the soldiers are going,' said Olga, an ethnic Russian television producer. 'And my everyday relations with Latvia are fine. But I do wish the question of my citizenship could be sorted out. As it is, I feel like a second-class person.'

Despite the fact that she has lived all her life in Latvia, speaks Latvian and would feel foreign in Russia, Olga has only a resident's permit and, under a quota system, may have to wait until the year 2000 to receive full citizenship. In the meantime, she has less chance of acquiring property than a citizen.

Inter-ethnic tension has never erupted into violence in the Baltic states but clearly suspicions and resentments will remain for years to come.

The other problem which Latvian and Russians face equally is simply surviving. Riga now looks almost like a Western city with real shops, not the kiosks of Moscow. It has other features of the West as well, such as wheel clamps for badly parked cars. But the people remain poor.

The new Latvian currency, the Lat, is hard, exchangeable at a rate of 2 to the dollar. But salaries are low and prices high. A pensioner must live on 20 Lats a month, a teacher on 40, a bowl of salad and a cup of tea in a cafe costs 6 Lats.

For this reason, hard work is everyone's top priority and, though the Russian empire may be retreating, today will just be another working day.