Russian troops to quit Estonia on time

APPARENTLY without making any concessions to Moscow, the Estonian President, Lennart Meri, yesterday persuaded Boris Yeltsin to sign an agreement whereby all remaining former Soviet troops will leave his small Baltic country by the end of August.

The deal meant a promising new era in Baltic-Russian relations and stability for the whole of Northern Europe, said Mr Meri. The Russian side said tersely that the negotiations had 'proceeded with much difficulty'.

Although Estonia suffered no violence at the hands of the Soviet army in January 1991 when civilians were killed in Lithuania and Latvia, it has had more trouble than its two neighbours in persuading the Russian military to go home. Lithuania waved goodbye to former Soviet troops shortly after achieving independence and Latvia won a Russian promise of an August pullout earlier this year. But Estonia seemed unable to rid itself of some 2,000 soldiers, the last bitter reminder of how Stalin annexed the Baltic states; relations with Russia were becoming tense.

The sticking point was the treatment of some 10,000 former Soviet army personnel who are retired in Estonia. The Russians said they would keep their last troops in Tallinn until they were satisfied that the military pensioners were getting a fair deal. Yesterday's agreement said the pensioners' social rights would be 'equal to those of Estonian citizens', which Moscow will no doubt seek to present as a victory.

But according to Mr Meri, it was always the case that genuine pensioners would be provided for and only the 'inaccurate reports' of certain journalists had suggested otherwise. Estonian law would not be changed as a result of the deal with Mr Yeltsin and Estonian law already had a provision for the retired soldiers, he said. Former Soviet army personnel born before 1930, if they do not speak Estonian - a requirement for full citizenship - may neverless receive residence permits and social welfare.

'We can guarantee to all living in Estonia equal rights,' said the President.

Tallinn had been unhappy about the Russian army trying to pass off men in their late 30s and early 40s, some of them former intelligence operatives, as pensioners, and these people will indeed find it hard to settle in Estonia, which is attractive because it has a higher standard of living than Russia.

The Foreign Minister, Juri Luik, said a commission would examine residence applications from people whom the authorities felt posed a security risk to Estonia. A representative from the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe would sit on the commission to ensure 'fair play', he said.