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Estonia Unruffled by Move To Suspend Troop Pullout

Both Russia and Estonia play down statements linking troop withdrawal with the issue of the rights of the Russian minority

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OFFICIALS of this tiny nation are reacting coolly to the announcement last week of a halt in the withdrawal of Russian troops from the three Baltic republics.

"We are taking this very calmly and very peacefully," Prime Minister Mart Laar, whose conservative coalition took office last month, told the Monitor in an exclusive interview in his elegant parliament office. "We are interested in negotiations with the Russian government."

Estonian officials, like their counterparts in Lithuania and Latvia, view the statement issued by Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Oct. 29 as part of the Russian leader's combat with his own opposition, led by former Communists and extreme nationalists.

"His statement was mostly influenced by an internal Russian political fight," Premier Laar says. Both sides try to use the "Baltic card," he explains, claiming to be standing up for the rights of Russian military men stationed in the Baltics and for the substantial Russian-speaking minority. Yeltsin's declaration indirectly tied troop withdrawal to the improvement of "social conditions" of soldiers as well as complaints that the Russian minority had been deprived of their civil rights.

The Estonian leaders' caution, a stance mirrored in the other Baltic states, is dictated in part by their sense that Yeltsin and the Russian Foreign Ministry are a better partner for resolving these problems than their opponents.

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