Still Bitter toward Russia, Estonia Reluctant to Nourish Vital Economic Cooperation

Article excerpt

IN an out-of-the-way corner of this city's renovated Old Town, tucked among the Protestant church spires and narrow cobblestone alleys, lies a cluster of ruins. Behind a chain-link fence around the site, a sign reads: "On March 9, 1944, bombs dropped by the Soviet Air Force killed 453 people, wounded 659, and left 20,000 people homeless."

It has been almost a year since Estonia - and its Baltic neighbors Lithuania and Latvia - regained independence. But as the macabre memorial indicates, the emotional wounds caused by the Baltic nation's involuntary incor- poration into the Soviet Union run deep in Estonia. And they won't heal easily.

These days many Estonians hold Russia, always considered here a synonym for the Soviet Union, responsible for impoverishing their country. The nation of 1.6 million would be thriving today, they say, if its economy had not been saddled with central planning from Moscow.

The anger that served as a motivational tool in the Baltics' drive to break away from the Soviet Union, however, now threatens Estonia's effort to revive a market economic system.

In Estonia, hard feelings on both sides appear to have penetrated almost all aspects of Tallinn's relations with Russia. "Russians still consider Estonia to be a province," says Estonian government councilor Aimar Altosaar.

Experts say stable relations with Russia would greatly ease hardships in Estonia, as the Baltic nation begins painful economic reforms. But instead of smoothing relations, Estonia seems intent on provoking Russia.

Disputes over the withdrawal of Russian troops, and discrimination against Estonia's sizable ethnic Russian minority, have become substantial obstacles to improved relations.

Many Estonians are preoccupied with the continued the Russian Army presence in the Baltics. Udo Helme, a government consultant with Estonia's National Defense Board, argues that the Baltic states cannot be considered truly independent until the "occupation Army" has left.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, under pressure from Western leaders, gave assurances the approximately 130,000 Russian troops in the Baltics would be withdrawn. But he failed to provide a precise timetable, citing Russia's budget problems and a lack of adequate housing.

"We just can't pull out 100,000 troops and leave them in the middle of a field," Mr. Yeltsin said, indicating the process could take up to two years.

But Mr. Helme asserts that the Russians are stalling, saying five months is more than enough time for the estimated 23,000 troops in Estonia to leave. …

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