20th Anniversary of Troop Withdrawal Treaties Remembered, Seen as Key Step on Way to EU ({{commentsTotal}})

Twenty years ago on July 26, Estonian President Lennart Meri and Russia's Boris Yeltsin signed an agreement under which Russia would withdraw its last troops in Estonia by August 31, 1994.

Remembered for the catchphrase, "timely, orderly, and completely" and the ever-PR-savvy Meri's vow not to touch any champagne at official functions until the last troops were gone, the agreements were recalled over the weekend by one key diplomat from that period as the sine qua non of EU and NATO membership.

The foreign minister at the time, Jüri Luik, told ETV that without the agreement, Estonia would not have had a chance of getting into NATO.

"Our position was very clear," said Luik, now Estonia's ambassador to Moscow. "We would sign the agreements if they took Estonia's interests into consideration. Our big trump card was of course the international community - the US, whose role was very great. Sweden, too, which coordinated the united front of foreign countries."

Luik, who incidentally was a near dead ringer for the leader of the troop withdrawal agreement talks, Väino Reinart, emphasized: "If we look at the situation today, the door to the EU and NATO has become very narrow."

The agreements came at a price - with the talks bogging down, Estonia made a concession. Military pensioners, some of them high-ranking, were given the right to seek residence permits. Some on the nationalist wing criticized the agreements, much as the same camp does today in the case of this year's border treaty with Russia.

But the right-of-center prime minister in 1994, Mart Laar, called the signing a victory for Estonian foreign policy. Still, a heated domestic debate followed as to who benefited more, Estonia or Russia.

Parliament ratified the agreements in December 1995.

The Russians stuck to their agreement, by and large. On August 30, 1994, the last ship bearing troops and equipment left. Ämari, which recently became a NATO-regulation airfield, was handed over on August 29. In Paldiski, the decommissioning of a nuclear sub reactor would continue for another year.

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