Baltic Leaders Can't Wait To See the Last of the Red Army
AFTER the niceties of his United Nations address were over, Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis got right to the point. He wants the Soviet Army removed from his nation's territory - yesterday.It was no coincidence that Latvian President Anatolijs Gorbunovs and Estonian President Arnold Ruutel echoed the same message in their speeches, and a White House meeting with President Bush had an identical refrain. The quick removal of some 75,000 Soviet troops from the Baltics has taken top priority following the failed coup in Moscow. Before the coup, when even a protracted and negotiated independence seemed a tenuous hope for the Baltics, a long Soviet military presence in the region was assumed. Even in the most optimistic scenarios, multi-year contracts similar to the arrangement the United States has in the Philippines were proposed as acceptable models by Baltic leaders. But with a vastly shaken central Soviet power base, Baltic leaders think they can do better. They deserve better. "Our membership in the UN is the best guarantee yet for our security, and we will press its members for support in getting this illegal, foreign military removed from our countries," says President Landsbergis. It is well that he looks for support in the UN or the European Community because it is doubtful that much of any substance will come from the White House - despite backslapping rhetoric from Bush. The Bush administration has proven so loyal to Soviet central authority that diplomatic recognition was purposefully delayed until Moscow offered first to release the Baltics - even when the issue was moot since some 40 nations and republics had already offered to exchange ambassadors. It was a symbolic but significant delay - the kind that worries Baltic leaders. Shortly before the attempted coup, Bush said while in the Ukraine that the US would take no sides in the independence struggles of the Soviet republics. Some saw this as a message which may have added to the confidence of hardliners as final preparations for the putsch were made. It is this lack of resolve - some say understanding - by Washington which Baltic leaders fear will allow hardliners in the military time to regroup. "It is best to deal with the Soviet military in the way you deal with their hockey team: Score your goals when they are shorthanded - or else you may not have another chance," says Dmitri Kopelman, chairman of Lithuania's Democratic Party. DISTRUST and distaste for the Soviet military runs deep in the Baltics. One need only look at the way retreating Soviet troops ransacked the broadcast center and other buildings occupied in Vilnius to viscerally understand why. In a period of two years in the late 1980s, 33 Lithuanian draftees died of suspicious noncombat injuries. Although in principle the Soviet Defense Ministry has agreed to release the remaining Baltic conscripts, this remains an unfulfilled promise. Pressure will likely come from mid-level Soviet officers to linger in the Baltics - if for reasons more of butter and less of guns. A Baltic post was regarded as a coveted perquisite - especially as a place to retire. With a standard of living always higher than in the rest of the Soviet Union - and one which will most certainly improve faster as the remnants of the Slavic and Asian republics deteriorate - officers and their families will balk at competing with returning troops from Eastern Europe for ho using and consumer goods. But this is a problem for the Kremlin to solve, not Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, explain Baltic leaders. To aid the removal of Soviet troops from much of Eastern Europe, the Kremlin has demanded what amounts to a multibillion-dollar ransom - despite a record of unparalleled pollution on their many bases. Germany alone has financed more than $6 billion for the evacuation from former East Germany and still faces enormous cleanup costs. Such extortion has yet remained publicly unspoken during the recent upheaval in the Baltics, but it is on the forefront of concern. The Soviet Defense Ministry's pledge to remove its troops from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia only by 1994 leaves far too much time to develop such a claim, according to Baltic leaders. And Landsbergis adds: "The Baltics are in a different category than Germany and the rest of Eastern Europe. The occupation by the Soviet Army here was illegal in 1940 and it is illegal today. They were never invited onto our territory so the timetables acceptable in other places do not apply to us." On a purely economic level, Soviet bases occupy some of the most desirable real estate, particularly on the Baltic coast, where development of tourism could build a stable source of hard currency for the nascent post-Soviet economies. With diplomatic recognition and membership in the UN as independent states also comes the right to buy weapons over the counter on the world market. That the Lithuanian defense department has on its priority list the purchase of antitank weapons gives some insight as to its comfort with Soviet pledges. "It is not only a security issue with us, but also for the whole of Europe, and the sooner a positive solution the sooner the Baltic states can accelerate the development of their economy and culture," says President Ruutel. WITH billions in aid to Moscow proposed, Washington and the West again have a window of opportunity to press the Kremlin to act in accordance with the democratic principles which ordinary people put themselves in front of tanks to defend. To close that window on them again by pretending that the withdrawal of Soviet troops is an internal Kremlin matter serves neither the interest of Europe, the US, nor what is left of the Soviet Union. The Soviets were praised by Western governments for the recognition of Baltic independence. But recognition is meaningless and the praise premature unless a swift Army pullout follows. Shortly after it became clear that the coup failed, Soviet Black Beret troops in Latvia boasted of large caches of hidden weapons and pledged to go underground. In Lithuania, at least a third of the Black Berets are yet unaccounted for. Renewed terrorism can not be ruled out. "We owe them nothing. They owe us what they can never repay - the lives of hundreds of thousands. We just want them to leave," says Landsbergis.
John Budris was in Lithuania during the failed Soviet coup.