20 Years Since the Russian Troop Withdrawal: Early, Orderly, Completely - and Irreversibly

8/31/2014 2:35 PM
Category: Opinion

Twenty years ago, World War II ended in Estonia as the last Russian occupation troops left.

Reckoning August 31, 1994 as the end of World War II in Europe is more than a dramatic way to impress upon the world how the Baltics and the rest of Eastern Europe suffered, often in silence, in the half century after VE Day, although there is still plenty of need for such reminders.

It was only after the Russian troops left that Estonia could breathe freely. Just consider everything that military bases come with - demands for transit, soldiers' tendency to stray from the base - and, of course, the way Russian bases were used in Crimea this year, to imagine how things might still have gone wrong at some point in Estonia. The seeds would still have remained in the country for another 1939-1940 scenario. And Estonia would probably not have been admitted to NATO or the EU.

The war itself continued in Estonia long after it supposedly ended. The last resistance fighter was killed in 1978. Although by that time, the movement may have dwindled to a few "lost men," technically it still means the Soviets ruled Estonia uncontested for a mere 13 years - a very different number from the "50 years" we usually hear. By that time, the evil empire was faltering and stagnant, and the non-violent independence movement had sprouted underground.

Although for the most part, to the Russians' credit, the 1994 pullout was orderly and complete as per the agreement negotiated all spring and summer that year, there are always asterisks. Bases were looted on the way out, anything of value destroyed. And certain installations remained even after 1994 - Latvia's Skrunda radar station, Paldiski nuclear reactor - by special agreement.

Most controversially at the time, a class of high military officers were given pension guarantees by the Estonian government. Most controversially in the long view, no reparations have yet been paid by Russia for the environmental problems left behind on the bases - such as rocket fuel in ground water - let alone the rest of the occupation and the gash in the social and demographic fabric. Estonia, which already has its hands full cleaning up mines and unexploded ordnance from playing host to some of the bloodiest battles 70 years ago, should demand reparations for the violence perpetrated directly against the Estonian people.

By some odd historical parallel, Estonia is now preparing to host increasing numbers of foreign troops on its soil, and eventually probably bases. There is populist grumbling from some corners, but it is about the same as the grousing of "from one empire to another" that was heard before Estonia joined the EU. Although ERR News has said Estonia should be more independent in its foreign policy than it has been, we do not see a danger of becoming an American vassal state or of a new occupation.

There is nothing similar here to the Soviet occupation. Under the Soviets, boys were sent to Afghanistan and to Chernobyl against their will. Estonia is now participating in creating international security by sending professional troops on foreign missions. The new bases that may be set up in Estonia are the other side of the ledger, what Estonia gets in return. It would be a fair exchange, and timely in the face of a belligerent Russia. Estonia must not settle for half-measures and demand at least as much security as it has paid for.

The troop withdrawal agreement negotiated by presidents Meri and Yeltsin in 1994 specified "early, orderly, completely." In light of this year's events, perhaps it would have been a good idea to specify a fourth adverb - "irreversibly" - for good measure. Of course, that would not give any ironclad security. However, NATO and timely responses now can provide just that.


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