NEURUPPIN, EAST GERMANY -- Free at last to speak out, East Germans and their elected local governments increasingly are complaining about the large Soviet military bases, airfields and training grounds sprawled across the country.

The new willingness to vent anger about the Soviet military presence in East Germany so far has focused on practical problems similar to those caused by U.S. forces in West Germany, such as complaints over the flight patterns of noisy supersonic warplanes. But local leaders said citizen movements could easily turn politically hostile if any doubt creeps into the widespread assumption that the Soviet military pullout will be swift.

As a result, a Western diplomat pointed out, the roughly 360,000 Soviet soldiers stationed in East Germany, along with 120,000 civilian dependents, have become as much a liability as a bargaining chip for Moscow in its negotiations with the United States and Western nations over the strategic implications of Germany's post-reunification membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The East and West German governments, unlike those of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, have refrained from seeking rapid withdrawal of the Soviet troops here. The two Germanys recognize Soviet security concerns and are appreciative that the troops stayed out of last fall's toppling of the East German regime. But delay and uncertainty have begun to test the patience of many East Germans for whom a large Soviet military presence has been an abiding irritation.

The impatience is beginning to show in Neuruppin and at least a half-dozen other areas in East Germany, despite rules designed to keep Soviet recruits off the streets except when escorted by officers. Citizens have held demonstrations, organized petitions and, according to one report, picked fights with Soviet officers on trains between Potsdam and the Soviet Western Group of Forces headquarters in Wundsdorf.

The Neuruppin chapter of the German-Soviet Friendship Society, which last year counted 18,000 members, was dissolved a few weeks ago for lack of interest. Its German director, headed into what he called "early retirement," looked on forlornly as sweating Soviet soldiers cleaned out the abandoned headquarters, loading a flatbed truck with armfuls of translated Russian classics and brochures extolling life in the Soviet Union.

The German-Soviet Friendship Society has seen its national membership drop from 6 million to 200,000, according to the West German magazine Stern. In the early days of President Mikhail Gorbachev's leadership, a diplomat recalled, East Germans joined the society as a way of endorsing his liberalizing reforms and tweaking the noses of their own conservative Communist government.

Undeterred by the drop in interest, the local Soviet commander has posted an offer to hear citizen complaints and "talk about anything" at the officers' club from 5 to 7 p.m. on the first and fourth Thursday of every month. But Neuruppin's newly elected mayor, Silke Bringmann, 27, said that what her townspeople are really wondering is why the East-West conventional-arms talks in Vienna have stalled, even after the Soviet Union and the United States agreed to troop cuts that would limit each side to 195,000 in Central Europe.

"The population, of course, expects that from the disarmament talks in Vienna there will be results in Neuruppin, and nothing is happening here yet," she said. "We as civilians no longer see the necessity for all this. We feel no need to be defended any more."

Neuruppin, a farm community of 28,000 about 30 miles northwest of Berlin, has had more than its share of problems with the Soviet military. For years, Soviet MiG fighter-bombers have screamed overhead, taking off and landing, beginning at 6 a.m., from a large air base that lies alongside the town. The landing path steers training flights directly over the cemetery and a busy gasoline station.

"It's just mad," said the deputy mayor, Wolfgang Klein.

Klein, 46, who was a gym teacher before East Germany's revolution led him into politics, said he doesn't know how many Soviets are stationed around Neuruppin, and neither does Mayor Bringmann nor their Communist predecessors in city hall. But the current estimate puts the Soviet population at 28,000, the same level as the town's. A local Social Democratic Party member who took a ride recently in a crop-duster reported back that he was "shocked" at how extensive the Soviet bases appeared from the air, Klein said.

Upset that the Soviet commander declared himself unauthorized to limit training flights, activists from the Green Party and New Forum organized a demonstration against the base May 21 that drew 6,000 to 8,000 protesters. It was the third such demonstration aimed at the Soviet military since the Berlin Wall was breached last November. Meanwhile, a petition for removal of the base garnered more than 8,000 signatures, the mayor said.

The crowd at the last protest against the base was particularly upset because a Soviet plane accidentally had dropped three unexploded bombs at the nearby village of Raegelin several days before. A small group, including mothers pushing baby carriages, rushed past security officers and onto the base runway, provoking a tense confrontation with the Soviet guards.

"It became very clear that they {the Soviet military} will carry out their orders and protect their territory if they have to," Mayor Bringmann recalled.

Protesters in Eberswalde, about 20 miles northeast of Berlin, staged a demonstration May 12 demanding an end to noisy flights to and from the nearby Soviet air base and sent a petition to the government demanding action. Eberswalde's mayor, Hans Mai, recently wrote the government in Berlin demanding that apartments occupied by Soviet officers and their families be turned over to the community.

"There aren't enough apartments for our own citizens, and then you have the foreigners taking up room also," explained Petra Etzel, an aide to Mai. "It is natural that hostility should arise because of all these practical problems. You have to be honest. There would be a lot of benefits for us if the Soviets leave."

Local housewives have long resented having to compete with Soviet families for scarce consumer goods, such as children's shoes, Etzel added. But the strawberries may have been the last straw for Eberswalde, where the 55,000 residents, including Mai, enthusiastically follow the German tradition of growing gardens in little suburban plots. Most of Eberswalde's community plots lie in a gully just off the air base, so townspeople knew whom to blame when midnight raiders polished off a good portion of this spring's strawberry crop.

Some analysts have suggested that the sheer size of the Soviet military establishment in East Germany means withdrawal could take a number of years even after a timetable is agreed upon. But a West German Defense Ministry official said the operation, while complicated, could be carried out over two or three years without major problems.

U.S. and West German specialists have noted, for example, that in routine rotations between 70,000 and 90,000 Soviet soldiers, some with families, fly in and out of East Germany every year. A more pressing problem for Soviet planners, the Defense Ministry official explained, is finding housing to accommodate returning soldiers and reorganizing command structures to create assignments at home for the high-level units stationed here.