Russia halts withdrawal of troops from the Baltic

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The Independent Online
RUSSIA tightened the screws on the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania yesterday by announcing it was temporarily halting the withdrawal of some former Soviet troops from the region.

The Defence Ministry justified the measure on the grounds that returning soldiers had nowhere to live in Russia. Without specifying which of the three republics would be affected, it pointed out that the Russian government was already struggling to accommodate many thousands of troops who have been pulled out of former Warsaw Pact countries and Mongolia.

However, the decision was announced at a time when senior Russian politicians, including President Boris Yeltsin, have been increasingly critical of the policies adopted by many former Soviet republics towards their Russian minorities. Russian leaders argue that new citizenship laws in the Baltic countries, which were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and regained their independence last year, have disenfranchised Russians and effectively reduced them to second-class citizens.

The main problem concerns Estonia, where two in five people are ethnic Russians, and Latvia, where more than one in four is Russian. Russia has agreed to pull out its soldiers from Lithuania by next August, but Mr Yeltsin said earlier this month that he would not sign an accord on troop withdrawals from Estonia and Latvia until they agreed to guarantee the rights of the Russian minorities.

Mr Yeltsin's Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, a vociferous supporter of the Russian nationalist cause, has gone further and threatened economic sanctions against Estonia. The Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, who is equally conservative, complained on Monday that Russian military bases in the Baltic states had been placed under a virtual blockade.

More than 120,000 troops were based in the Baltic states before the collapse of the Soviet Union. About 40 per cent are believed to have been removed since then, but the Baltic governments say the process is taking too long. They also complain they have no access to Russian military installations on their soil and little knowledge of what is going on inside them.

Western military analysts say that another reason why the Kremlin may be delaying the troop withdrawal is that Russian generals and admirals believe they have important strategic interests to defend in the Baltic region.

In Latvia, the armed forces want to hold on to a naval base at Liepaja, an early-warning radar facility at Skrunda, and other installations. A group of officers serving in the Baltic area recently went to Russia's highest court to contest the decision to remove the troops.

A convicted rapist and former motorcycle-gang leader was under arrest yesterday after throwing a grenade at a police station near the Moscow branch of McDonald's restaurant.

Eight people were wounded by the explosion, including a five- year-old Afghan girl with injuries to her head and hands. A McDonald's spokesman said the restaurant had not been damaged by the blast, which took place on Monday evening at Pushkin Square, but added: 'A huge moral blow has been inflicted upon us.'

The restaurant opened in 1990 and became an instant favourite with Muscovites.