Out of Russia: Uneasy Balts dig up their weapons again

MOSCOW - Once the vanguard of the second Russian revolution, the Baltic states faded rapidly from the front pages at the beginning of the year, their violent struggles for independence replaced with ethnic clashes in Georgia and Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The new contest was between Russia and Ukraine, or Kazakhstan. So populous and potentially rich were these other countries by comparison that it seemed possible that the Balts might not be heard of for some time.

Not so. In recent days, the Estonians have made quite a splash. Members of a group called the Forest Brethren, descendants of rural guerrillas who fought against the annexation of Estonia in 1940, have returned to the woods. They are digging up caches of weapons hidden for 50 years and ambushing the former occupation troops who are now part of the Russian army.

According to witnesses, members of the Brethren lurk in the trees like other partisans of old. From a forest hideout one group of Brethren pounced on a Russian convoy, opened fire and seized three officers and three soldiers, later releasing them.

Before that, a thousand people from the Estonian Green Movement forced their way on to a Russian naval base and held a rally demanding the closure of the base. This week, Estonian border guards seized a Russian ship that was removing buoys close to the shore in Estonia's Parnu Bay. The Estonians claimed the Russian ship had not 'co-ordinated' its actions with the Tallinn government, endangering other ships. But they let it go.

Moscow is very upset, naturally. The Russian high command has complained bitterly about the harassment of its troops in the Baltics and, in Estonia specifically, of the actions of 'armed bandits' against its troops and the seizure of its ship. Russia still has 20,000 troops left in Estonia, which has a population of 1.5 million - and has another 110,000 in Lithuania and Latvia. All three Baltic states fear that their hard-won independence might be threatened again if hardliners regain power in Moscow.

The three Baltic governments are organising international pressure on Moscow to speed up withdrawal of its troops, and local militants meanwhile are having a field day harassing the soldiers.

The rise of the Brethren comes at the same time as stern new Estonian laws depriving the 500,000 ethnic Russians of the vote, making them into second-class citizens. Citizenship laws give full rights only to direct descendants of people who lived there before 1940. One Estonian law would require non- citizens to have different-coloured number plates for their cars - like Arabs in Israel's occupied territories.

The Russians accuse the Estonians of violating a treaty between the two states drawn up in January last year that permitted Russians to take part in local elections. The Russian Foreign Ministry accuses the Estonian government of 'creating an atmosphere which opens the way to intolerance, aggressive nationalism and xenophobia. . .'

Talks between the two sides, now in the fifth round, make painful progress. Russia says it cannot withdraw its troops by the end of the year because it has no housing for them at home - a fact that everyone accepts as true. But the Balts have run out of patience. In a new twist, Russia has accused Estonia of trying to grab land by invoking an old 1920 treaty. Partly in retaliation, Russia is putting up customs posts on the main routes into Estonia.

The Estonian constitution says the borders were established by the Tartu Peace Treaty of 1920 which puts sizeable tracts of land in the Leningrad and Pskov regions into Estonia. The Russians no longer recognise that treaty and have set up four customs posts on the Estonian side of the 1920 line.

A Russian official said reassuringly: 'We do not pursue the aim of erecting a wall.' The Estonians feel they know otherwise, of course.