Lithuanians Bid Russian Troops Farewell
VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) _ Russia withdrew its last soldier from Lithuania on Tuesday, a pullout that the president said ″was awaited and dreamed about″ by his countrymen since 1940.
Lithuania is the first Baltic nation to eject all former Soviet troops, who numbered more than 34,000 here a year ago.
The last of about 2,400 paratroopers crossed out of Lithuania by train shortly after 8 p.m., President Algirdas Brazauskas announced to Parliament, as his words were carried by loudspeaker to an applauding crowd outside.
″This day was awaited and dreamed about by more than one Lithuanian generation since 1940,″ Brazauskas said.
Soldiers under Moscow command arrived in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia shortly after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin absorbed the Baltic states in a secret deal with Nazi Germany in 1939.
″I’m enjoying this,″ said Semetas Jonas, 71, standing in the crowd of about 200 outside Parliament. He said he saw the Russian troops when they came to Vilnius - ″a depressing sight.″
A few Russian officers will remain in Lithuania to oversee removal of munitions from Russian bases.
″In two or three weeks, all their work will be completed,″ Defense Minister Audrius Butkevicius said Tuesday. ″Today there is not a single Russian military unit on Lithuanian soil.″
Russia’s government was milking the pullout for its own political purposes. Its ambassador to Lithuania, Nikolai Abertasov, suggested that President Boris Yeltsin’s hard-line opponents might not have been so kind.
″It shows the Russian Federation, led by its current leaders, is going the way of democracy,″ Abertasov said.
Russia still has about 15,000 soldiers in Latvia and 4,000 in Estonia. Both countries have welcomed Russia’s pullout, and expressed hope for similar quick agreement with their governments.
Lithuanian nationalists long labeled the troops occupiers. In January 1991, Soviet troops carried out a bloody crackdown on independence-minded governments in Lithuania and Latvia.
Russia grudgingly agreed to the withdrawal after the Soviet collapse, but stopped the pullout on Aug. 18, citing Lithuania’s sudden demand for $146 billion in damages. The troops were scheduled to leave by the end of August.
Yeltsin resumed the pullout Monday after agreeing with Brazauskas to separate negotiations on compensation. Brazauskas will go to Moscow in September to discuss reparations and other issues.
The U.S. ambassador to Lithuania, Darryl Johnson, welcomed the pullout and said it now was up to Russia and Lithuania to capitalize on the goodwill.
The United States and several European countries put pressure on Russia to meet its promised pullout date. Lithuanian officials have expressed appreciation for the help.