Soviet Troops Begin Czech Pullout; All to Leave by ’91
A phased withdrawal of Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia began Monday as President Vaclav Havel witnessed in Moscow the signing of an agreement that calls for the removal of all 73,500 Soviet troops from Czechoslovakia by July 1, 1991.
The Soviet pullout began with little fanfare and a striking lack of emotion on the part of Czechoslovaks, although they have been reluctant hosts to the troops since August, 1968, when Soviet tanks led a Warsaw Pact invasion to crush the Prague Spring reforms.
One brass band was provided by the Soviets at their base at Frenstat Pod Radhostem, a town of 7,000 people in the mountains of eastern Czechoslovakia. But the one speech from the sole Czechoslovak official present was almost terse.
“We have come from the local committee in Frenstat to say goodby to you,” said Oldrich Smajcstrja, chairman of the local national council, the equivalent of mayor. “We want to wish you a happy journey and give you wishes that the Soviet soldiers and their families have a peaceful life in their homeland. Travel well. Thank you.”
Officials could not give an exact number for the troops departing on the first day, but it was believed to be fewer than 1,000 of the 73,500. Many of the soldiers looked frail and underfed and generally unhappy.
The Soviet troops loaded about 20 T-62 tanks, armored personnel carriers and trucks aboard railroad flatcars. Personal belongings, including locally made bicycles and household fixtures, were crammed aboard freight cars.
The spectacle seemed to hold little interest for the local population, which reacted to the Soviets’ departure in the way most Czechoslovaks had reacted to their presence for 20 years: They tried their best to ignore them.
“It’s better for them and better for us that they go,” said Dita Krubova, a 19-year-old factory worker.
In Moscow, Havel and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev met and announced the withdrawal agreement. Havel told journalists afterward that Soviet troops may leave before the deadline, possibly as early as a year from now.
“He (Gorbachev) said it is quite possible they will leave fully within a year,” Havel said. “But in the agreement, we would leave the date as June 30 so that if they are unable to do it in a year, it will not look as though either side were not fulfilling its obligations.”
Havel also reflected on the state of Czechoslovak-Soviet relations.
“In my mind, the Soviet occupation of 1968 is the deepest wound,” he said. “But it is a thing of the past, I believe, especially this evening when the treaty on troop withdrawal was signed.
“Gorbachev and I agreed the best way to deal with the dark pages of our past is to look forward.”
Gorbachev echoed those sentiments:
“We agreed that we should take what was positive in the past, get rid of everything that was a burden on our political and economic relations and move forward, taking into account the interests of the two countries and the requirements of the times,” he said.
Havel said he and Gorbachev also signed a declaration affirming that relations between the two countries will be based on equality and respect for each other’s sovereignty. A third agreement was signed to provide for Soviet and Czech security forces to cooperate in fighting terrorism, crime and illegal drug trafficking, he said.
The agreement on troop withdrawals had already been initialed by Soviet and Czechoslovak deputy foreign ministers last week, and in Moscow on Monday it was signed by Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze and his Czechoslovak counterpart, Jiri Dienstbier, as Havel and Gorbachev watched. It provides for the departure of Soviet forces in three stages and for the majority of the troops to be out of Czechoslovakia by May 31 of this year. The second phase would be completed by December and the third by July 1, 1991.
Czechoslovakia’s coalition government had originally demanded that all Soviet troops be out by the end of this year, but Havel told the U.S. Congress last week that the most important thing was for most of them to leave before elections in June.
It was believed that 1,500 to 2,000 troops would leave Frenstat over the next several days. In addition, it was announced that 28,000 more troops would leave bases in Semily in East Bohemia and Usti Nad Orlici by May 31.
The Soviet soldiers will be heading back to some uncertainty, as the Soviet government has acknowledged that it has insufficient housing to absorb the returning soldiers and their families.
Local officials said the Soviet soldiers and their families, some of whom have been departing in recent weeks, have taken with them bathroom fixtures, light switches and even doors, a reflection of the poor state of housing to which they will return.
“We assume they have no idea where they are going to be living or under what conditions,” said Dalibor Norsky, secretary of the local town council.
Havel said Czechoslovakia had offered to help speed the withdrawal by providing free rail and water transport of men and equipment and assistance in constructing housing for the soldiers in the Soviet Union.
Although the withdrawal comes as a result of a bilateral agreement between the Czechoslovaks and the Soviet Union, it carries a larger significance for the entire Warsaw Pact alliance, whose importance as a military factor in the changing political climate has been receding rapidly.
Soviet troops in Eastern Europe now total about 590,000. But more than half that number--370,000--are stationed in East Germany, until recently regarded as the front line in the East-West ideological and political divide.
While those forces in East Germany have been regarded as an expression of that division and the Soviet Union’s first line of defense against the West, the Soviet troops in the rest of the East Bloc have been viewed more as watchdogs over local Communist interests. In addition to their role in Czechoslovakia in 1968, they were used to crush the 1956 Hungarian uprising, and they have been a clear threat to Polish reform movements from 1956 until the Solidarity labor movement took power from the Communists last August.
In addition to the Soviet forces in Czechoslovakia, there are about 48,000 Soviet troops in Poland and about 70,000 more in Hungary.
No Soviet troops are deployed in Bulgaria and Romania.
As new non-Communist governments consolidate their power in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland, the removal of Soviet forces, once a virtually unmentionable subject, has become a public issue for politicians who will soon be facing elections and recognize the broad support behind proposals to get Soviet soldiers out of their respective countries.
The Hungarians are pressing as hard as the Czechoslovaks. Last week, Foreign Minister Gyula Horn suggested that the possibility of Hungary actually switching sides to become a member of NATO is not far-fetched.
A joint Hungarian commission of foreign affairs and defense specialists has proposed that the government push for a total Soviet withdrawal from Hungary by the end of this year.
The commission also took the unprecedented step of suggesting that the state president, to be elected later this year, be appointed as the permanent representative to the Warsaw Pact Political Consultative Committee, an appointment that has heretofore been reserved for the head of the Communist Party. Also, according to the proposal, any Hungarian commitment to this Warsaw Pact body would have to be approved by the National Assembly.
Although the likelihood of joint Warsaw Pact military action has never seemed more remote, these two Hungarian measures are clearly aimed at blocking any resurgence of the Soviet Union’s overwhelming dominance of the Warsaw Pact.
For the Czechoslovaks and Hungarians, the removal of Soviet troops and the moves to guarantee a kind of veto power over Warsaw Pact policy amount to a reassertion of national sovereignty.
The presence of Soviet forces in Poland is no more popular with the public, but the Polish situation has been complicated now by the approach of German reunification and the Polish concern over western Polish territory in Silesia and northwestern Poland that were part of pre-World War II Germany.
Last week, Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki said he would continue to welcome the presence of Soviet troops in Poland until the issue of Poland’s western border is decided.
The Poles are pressing to join the four victorious World War II powers--Britain, France, the United States and the Soviet Union--in negotiations with the two Germanys over reunification. They also want the West Germans to issue a forthright declaration that would guarantee the 600-mile border that Poland shares with East Germany.
The Polish government has been alarmed by agitation of former German inhabitants of the area--most of them expelled at the end of World War II, when the borders were set--to have the area returned to a reunified Germany.