Negotiations of the withdrawal of all Soviet and later Russian troops left in Estonia began immediately after the latter regained its independence in 1991. After a lot of stalling on the Russian side, an agreement was finally reached by Presidents Meri and Yeltsin 25 years ago on Friday.
On July 26, 1994, Estonian President Lennart Meri and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the so-called July Accords regulating the withdrawal of the remaining Russian forces from Estonian soil.
When Estonia regained its independence, more than 40,000 Russian officers and troops as well as their family members were still stationed in some 570 locations all around the country. This included enormous amounts of military equipment as well, such as planes, tanks, and other machinery, but also fixed assets that even included two nuclear reactors at the Baltic Fleet’s submarine training base in Paldiski.
Negotiations about first the Soviet and later the Russian forces’ withdrawal began in September 1991. A year later, Russia was ready to promise to have all its troops and materiel out of the country by 2002, which was entirely unacceptable to the Estonian side.
A later Russian offer was to have them out by 1997, halving the time they would take to withdraw, but still insisting that, given the enormous size of the contingents stationed in Estonia, the process would necessarily take a lot of time.
Despite the stalling, Russia actually managed to remove tens of thousands of soldiers within just two years. By 1993, their number had shrunk to just 7,600 military personnel and associated individuals.
A major breakthrough was eventually achieved in 1994. In connection with negotiations about a Russian military withdrawal from newly reunified Germany, NATO exercised enough pressure on Russia for the Soviet Union’s legal successor to agree to have its troops out of the Baltic states by August 31, 1994, the same deadline as applied for Germany.
With Russian troops already entirely out of Lithuania, and with Latvia having signed an agreement over their removal the same year, Estonia was last in line to see the occupying forces out. Efforts suffered a serious blow in July 1994, when Russia announced that it wouldn’t respect the 31 August deadline.
Estonia reacted quickly, vying for support in the international community. Several Western leaders as well as NATO officials once again increased their criticism of Russia, and demanded a solution.
In early summer 1994, when the Estonian parliament as well as most of the government were on holiday, President Yeltsin saw an opening to resolve the situation at the highest level, and relieve Western pressure on Russia. He invited President Meri to meet him in Moscow just three days later.
Much like current President Kersti Kaljulaid’s solo run earlier this year, when she met with Russian President Vladimir Putin without greater involvement or coordination with the Estonian government, Meri decided to act. With little communication or agreement of Prime Minister Mart Laar’s government, Meri decided to accept the invitation—a questionable move, since the Estonian president lacks the constitutional authority to deal with any foreign policy issues on their own.
But Meri was successful. Despite a number of disagreements during their meeting, and despite occasionally vague language that would later lead to years of difficulties in the two countries’ relations, an agreement over the withdrawal of Russian troops was signed.
By the time the Riigikogu convened on August 22, the withdrawal was already underway, which left the Estonian parliament with very little to discuss. Laar’s government decided not to question the agreement, which was eventually ratified in slightly amended form in 1995 by both countries.
At the time Meri and Yeltsin signed the July Accords, the Russian Army still had more than 350 armored vehicles, several dozen tanks, hundreds of trucks, and more than 30 tons of missiles left in Estonia. By the end of August 1994, the bulk of it was gone.
At the time the Russians left, with the exception of the German occupation in World War II, Estonia had been occupied by Soviet and Russian forces for 55 years.