WARSAW, Poland -- The last of the Russian forces in Poland, a torpedo boat team based on the Baltic coast, pulled out Wednesday -- but not without a two-hour delay due to choppy seas.
The 24th Torpedo Cutter Brigade, comprising 24 boats, left the northwestern Baltic port of Swinoujscie following departure ceremonies headed by Polish Vice Defense Minister Bronislaw Komorowski and Russian Ambassador Yuri Kashlev.
'Undoubtedly this is our greatest success,' presidential spokesman Andrzej Drzycimski said of the long-awaited moment. 'Finally, Poland is free.'
The ceremonies were held up for two hours by rainy weather, stiff winds and choppy waters in the port.
The departure leaves troops from the former Soviet empire only in eastern Germany.
The former Soviet Union began its troop withdrawals from Central Europe after the collapse of communism in 1989 made it clear their presence would no longer be tolerated.
Hungary was the first to report the withdrawal of its 65,000 foreign troops in July 1991. The final contingent of the 73,000 troops once based in Czechoslovakia pulled out a few weeks later. There were 59,000 Soviet soldiers in Poland when the pullout began in April 1991.
Under an agreement signed last May by President Lech Walesa and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, Russia agreed to pull out all its remaining combat troops from Poland by Nov. 15.
'The withdrawal of the last combat unit of troops from the former Soviet Union was realized earlier than agreed,' said a statement issued by the Russian Northern Group command.
'This way a whole epoch, started by World War II, has ended. Both sides expressed good will and mutual understanding,' the statement added. 'This creates the groundwork for development of good-neighborly relations between Russia and Poland.'
Poland's territory has 'grown' by more than 15 million acres with the departure of the troops, who were stationed in 58 garrisons throughout the country that were off-limits to the Poles.
The Russians turned over some 4,000 military facilities, ranging from buildings to entire cities such as Borne-Silinowo in northwestern Poland, which once housed 15,000 people, as well as nuclear weapons.
Under the agreement, Russia has one year to withdraw an estimated 100,000 tons of ammunition and explosives. According to the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, in order to meet the deadline, every day a freight train would have to leave Poland with 6.6 million pounds of materiel.
The Polish Defense Ministry is working on an agreement with the Russian Defense Ministry that would outline areas of future cooperation, such as education of Polish officers in Russian academies and participation in joint sports competitions. The agreement is expected to be ready next year. Poland already has similar agreements with Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia and Latvia.
'Historical justice has triumphed,' Drzycimski said in a statement on the withdrawal. 'It was achieved by a new Poland and a new Russia. This opening was possible because Russia has managed to cope with the challenge of a new time and to say, with courage, that a future must be built and a painful past has to be overcome.'
Poland and the former Soviet Union spent more than four decades as fraternal comrades under communism, but the tension underneath was always apparent.
Poland fought with the allies in World War II, but at the Big Four conference of victors in Yalta, it was put under the Soviet sphere of influence.
The Poles have never forgotten the Soviet slaughter of nearly 22,000 Polish officers in the opening months of the war when Germany attacked Poland from the West and the Soviets from the east.
With the rise of the independentSolidarity union in 1980, the Soviets threatened to invade as they had done in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Instead, Polish communist leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law to crush the union for nearly a decade, until it formed the first postwar non-communist government in Eastern Europe in 1989 following a peaceful transfer of power.