Soviet dissolution leaves soldiers in no-man's land

February 02, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Sun Staff Correspondent

TALLINN, Estonia -- It is a dismal end to glory.

On a gray foggy day, four Soviet naval officers sit in a tiny office at a Tallinn minesweeping base, trying to sort out who they are and where they belong.

Out the window, a half-dozen navy ships can be seen scattered near the shore. Inside, a captain and three lieutenant commanders sit under the gaze of V. I. Lenin, whose portrait still hangs on the wall.

The mighty Soviet military, once pampered with all the tanks and technology it could desire, now considers itself lucky to have bread.

The disintegrating economy has made the military a pauper overnight, forced to beg for food and housing. Even more dangerous, the dissolution of the Soviet Union has created an army without a country.

The fate of 4 million service members and their weapons has set off troubling disputes among the former Soviet republics as each claims authority over military personnel and property on their territory.

In Estonia and the other two Baltic nations, the conflict is unfolding in tense political terms, with wrenching human consequences.

Estonians want the Soviet military out of their country by the end of this year at the latest.

Russia agreed yesterday to begin withdrawing former Soviet troops from Latvia and Lithuania within the next two months, Reuters reported. Talks with Estonia on the subject are scheduled today. But the critical question of when the withdrawal will be complete remains unanswered.

Moscow has said that it has nowhere to send the thousands of troops stationed here and would be lucky to remove them by the end of 1994.

Estonia has cut off all food to the military bases here and declared it self the rightful owner of all military property on its soil.

The war of nerves between Russia and Estonia over the military issue has had practical and severe consequences for the people on bases like this one. While many of the sailors live on the ships, the officers generally live in town with their spouses and children.

Because of housing shortages and Estonia's unwillingness to provide space, Lt. Cmdr. Andrei G. Budkin lives in an 8-by-12-foot room in a hostel with his wife, their 1-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.

"I would be too embarrassed to let you see how I live," Commander Budkin says.

Lt. Cmdr. Anatoly Stukach, who has been based here since 1983, lives in a classroom at a military kindergarten with his wife and two sons, aged 8 and 2.

"We're no longer seen as citizens of the Soviet Union," he says. "But where should we go?"

Young people who began their military careers convinced they were great patriots safeguarding their nation's future now find themselves approaching midlife pitied if not reviled.

"Previously we were citizens of the Soviet Union," says Commander Budkin, who is a 39-year-old Russian married to a Ukrainian. "We could live wherever we wanted. I've been in the Soviet military 22 years. I've given 22 years of my life to my country, and I still don't have my own apartment."

Once he was a Soviet. He's not an Estonian now, but neither does he see any kind of life awaiting him in Russia. Where he once foresaw glory, he now only hopes for survival.

"Twenty-two years ago when I started my service, I thought the Soviet Union was strong and monolithic," he says. "We were the winners of the war. I thought we were building a happy life for our children. I believed this sincerely."

Still, he says, he can be proud of his life. "I think it's very responsible to stand with a gun in your hand on the border of your country," he says.

Estonians, of course, have quite a different view.

Eve Tarm, a Tallinn journalist, says Estonians see the military as an occupying army that ruthlessly seized their country in 1940. She feels sympathy for the individual service members but sees no reason why her now-independent country should genially host its oppressor.

"The army is a burden," she says. "We have to get those guys out. The aim of Soviet rule was to destroy the country, to try to assimilate Estonians into Soviet people or bring into Estonia so many immigrants it would become part of the empire.

"On a human level I feel sorry for the guys in the military, but on another level I just want them out."

It doesn't help matters that the Tallinn military personnel hands out business cards that celebrate 50 years of the Soviet navy in Tallinn. Nor does it help that a large statue of Lenin still stands in the naval base.

The military issue remains the most explosive problem facing the Commonwealth of Independent States, set up by the former republics of the Soviet Union.

Last month, Lithuanian border guards fired warning shots at a Soviet army convoy that crossed the border in defiance of Lithuanian orders.

Last week, Latvia's foreign minister, Janis Jurkans, complained that the Soviet army is "a threat to our political stability and is a threat to our economy. . . . This is a modern army which last year participated in two bloody military campaigns against Latvia and Lithuania."

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