Russia Agrees to Resume Troop Withdrawal from LithuniaBy Ken Fireman
Resolving a dispute that had raised anxieties throughout the Baltic region and in Washington, Russia agreed Monday to resume withdrawing its remaining troops from Lithuania and to complete the pullout quickly.
Lithuanian President Algirdas Brazauskas said the last 2,400 Russian soldiers would leave his country by Tuesday, as had originally been scheduled before Moscow suspended the withdrawal earlier this month. Russian officials did not set a date for completion of the withdrawal, but confirmed that the pullout was resuming and would be completed soon.
"This will turn a page in relations between our countries," Brazauskas said in a nationwide radio address announcing the agreement, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported from Vilnius.
The agreement to resume the withdrawal was reached during a lengthy telephone conversation between Brazauskas and Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. Overcoming the biggest obstacle to a resolution, the leaders agreed to set aside the issue of compensation for the half-century-long Soviet occupation of Lithuania for future negotiations.
"This was a good and frank conversation during which we found ... an acceptable compromise for both sides and agreed on a summit meeting in September," Brazauskas said.
Russian officials suspended the withdrawal Aug. 18 because of what they called unreasonable Lithuanian demands for financial compensation. A few days later, they broke off negotiations over the dispute and issued a toughly worded statement threatening to deal with any "provocations" against Russian servicemen "quickly, practically and decisively."
The Russian moves triggered worry among leaders of the other Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia, that Moscow was signaling a general hardening of its position toward the region.
The moves also prompted a warning from the Clinton administration that $700 million in U.S. aid to Russia could be jeopardized.
Russia, which inherited the 129,000 Soviet army soldiers stationed in the Baltics when the Soviet Union split apart in 1991, began withdrawing them last year. Today only 25,000 of those troops remain, the majority in Latvia, where the Baltic army group is headquartered. But Russia has refused even to commit itself to a timetable for a final withdrawal from Estonia and Latvia because of disputes with those governments over the treatment of ethnic Russian minorities.