Good start to Prof Koh’s mission

VETERAN diplomat Professor Tommy Koh found one-third of his mission to speed a Russian troop withdrawal from the Baltic states completed even before it began.

Professor Koh, who was given the mission by the United Nations, said in an interview yesterday: “I was blessed by the Gods because I arrived in Lithuania on the day in which the last Russian combat unit withdrew.

“I went straight from the airport to the square in front of parliament…where it was a night of celebration for the Lithuanians.”

However, problems with Estonia and Latvia had yet to be resolved, said Prof Koh. His programme included meetings with the Russian deputy foreign minister and deputy defence minister. He also called on the prime ministers of the three Baltic states.

He has completed a report on the mission. He said his recommendations were accepted by UN Secretary-General Dr Boutros Boutros Ghali but declined to reveal them before the UN did.

His two-week mission, which began on Aug 28, followed a UN resolution last November calling for the early withdrawal of all foreign forces from Estonia and Latvia. There was a similar accord between Russia and Lithuania.

The sore point for Estonia and Latvia was the status of ethnic Russian minorities in their territory, said Prof Koh. Most of these Russians were retired military officers who did not want to return.

At the same time, there was no agreement on the date for the withdrawal of Russian troops. Both Estonia and Latvia wanted them out by the end of this year. But Russia had insisted that it could not withdraw them before December next year due to a shortage of housing.

Prof Koh, who visited a military camp in Moscow housing returned Russian troops and their families, described it as “terrible”.

He said that he had recommended in his report that the three Baltic states, the United States, the European Community and the Scandinavian countries help Russia in this area.

He was optimistic that Estonia and Latvia would resolve their difficulties with Moscow: “I believe we have a window of opportunity in the next few weeks given the momentum of success in Lithuania to clinch a fair deal between Russia and Estonia and Russia and Latvia.”

Latvia presented a greater problem. Russia had three strategic facilities there which it wanted to continue operating. These included an anti-ballistic missile early warning system in Skrunda and a Russian naval base in Leipajad.

Latvia, however, was not receptive to the idea.

Another problem was the large number of Russian troops there. There were about 18,000 Russian soldiers in Latvia, two-thirds more than in Estonia.

Prof Koh, who arrived here yesterday morning after presenting his findings to the UN Secretary General in New York, said Singapore had always played an important role in world peace, from joining in peacekeeping operations to mediating in conflicts.

“As a small country, it is in our national interest to be useful to the world…When called upon by the international community to be helpful, we must not say no.”

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