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Latvia: Russia Hands Over Last Military Facility In Baltics

Russia gives up the last of its military facilities in the Baltics today, with the handover of a radar base to Latvian control. RFE/RL's Tuck Wesolowsky looks at the implications of Russia's waning military influence in the Baltic region.

Prague, 21 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Without a lot of fanfare, more than half a century of Russian military presence in the Baltics is coming to a close today.

It will happen when Russian officials relinquish control of a radar base in Skrunda, Latvia. The base was the last vestige of the once mighty Soviet military presence in the Baltics, dating back to the forced annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania into the Soviet Union during World War II.

Latvian Foreign Minister Indulis Berzinsh called the handover a "positive example" for relations between Riga and Moscow.

Russia was scheduled to hand over the radar base four months from now. But Russian officials say moving up the date of the pullout will save them $5 million they would have had to pay to rent the base during that time. The radar station has not been in operation for more than a year. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has already confirmed that the radar has been fully dismantled. The other radar station the Russians used in Skrunda was destroyed -- literally blown up -- in 1995 with American financial backing.

The director of the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, Atis Lejinsh, spoke to our correspondent in a telephone interview. He said Russian influence in the Baltics has been in decline ever since the first Russian troop withdrawals from Lithuania in 1993, followed by withdrawals from Estonia and Latvia in 1994.

With Russian influence waning in the Baltics, Lejinsh says the Russians are likely to play their last trump card by trying to block the three countries entrance into NATO. Lejinsh says the Russians will rely on arguments similar to those it used to try to stymie NATO's first wave of expansion last year.

"You look at the first NATO enlargement. They [the Russians] were against Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joining NATO. In the final analysis [however], they were resigned to it and they accepted it. Something like this will also happen with the Baltic states by saying it will upset West-Russian relations. This is the big argument they put forward previously, and this is an argument that has influence inside the Western democracies, and there are many opponents of NATO enlargement and it is an argument we always see."

But Lejinsh says Russia may find less sympathy in the West for Moscow's concerns about NATO expanding even closer to Russian borders. That is because, Lejinsh explains, such arguments resonate less amid a growing awareness of the depth of Russian corruption and a public perception that Russia is using excessive force to suppress terrorist forces in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

In the final analysis, Lejinsh says, Russia will probably shift its focus toward increasing its economic influence in the Baltics.

"If you read, for example, the Russian-Baltic report number 2, written by the Defense Foreign Policy Council chaired by Sergei Karaganov, you can see that Russia says it needs to increase its economic influence (in the Baltics) because the Baltic states will join the European Union. And Russia needs a toehold in the EU. So it is a different kind of influence. Whereas with NATO, it seems to me, Russia is resigned to the fact that the Baltic states will join NATO, eventually."

Russians equipped with briefcases instead of with guns may be something people in the Baltics can live with.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.