May 7, 2005
By Caren Bohan and Patrick McLoughlin
RIGA (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush denounced Soviet Cold War rule of eastern Europe as "one of the greatest wrongs of history" on Saturday in a jab at Moscow two days before celebrations of the 1945 victory over Hitler.
Bush, visiting Latvia before the ceremonies in Moscow marking 60 years since the end of World War Two in Europe, also held up the three Baltic states as examples of democratic reform since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
He said the end of the war brought liberty from fascism for many in Germany but meant the "iron rule of another empire" for the Baltic states -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- and nations from Poland to Romania.
Bush admitted the United States shared some responsibility for the Cold War division of Europe after the 1945 Yalta accord between Russia, the United States and Britain.
"Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable," he said. "Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable.
"The captivity of millions in central and eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history," he said in a speech at Riga's guildhall.
The three Baltic states joined both NATO and the European Union last year.
Bush's visit to Riga has angered Russia by reviving tensions about the Soviet occupation when Moscow is focusing on celebrating the end of World War Two, a conflict that cost 27 million Soviet lives.
Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed calls by the Baltic states for an apology for Soviet rule and accused them on Saturday of trying to cover up past Nazi collaboration.
BUSH MEETS PUTIN
The differing versions of history may make for frictions when Bush meets Putin in Moscow on Sunday and Monday.
Putin insists the Red Army was a liberator, not an oppressor, of Eastern Europe.
"Our people not only defended their homeland, they liberated 11 European countries," Putin said on Saturday after laying a wreath at a monument to Russia's war dead.
In a recent state of the nation speech he bemoaned the demise of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century". He has also said Washington should not try to export its own brand of democracy.
Bush said Russia's leaders had made "great progress" in the past 15 years.
"In the long run it is the strength of Russian democracy that will determine the greatness of Russia and I believe the Russian people value their freedom and will settle for no less," he said.
"As we mark a victory of six decades ago, we are mindful of a paradox. For much of Germany, defeat led to freedom. For much of Eastern and Central Europe, victory brought the iron rule of another empire."
He also held up the Baltics as examples of successful shifts to democracy, a theme he stressed for nations including Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Belarus.
"These are extraordinary times that we're living in and the three Baltic countries are capable of helping Russia and other countries in this part of the world see the benefits of what it means to live in a free society," Bush told a news conference.
But Bush did not back pleas by the Baltic countries for an apology from Russia. "My hope is that we are able to move on," he said.
He later flew to the Netherlands where he will spend Saturday night.
The presidents of Lithuania and Estonia will boycott the May 9 ceremonies in Moscow. Georgia's president will also stay away, but Latvia's president will attend.
All three Baltic nations, whose combined population is now about 6 million, were occupied by the Soviet Union in June 1940 after a pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia which divided up spheres of influence in East Europe.
In 1941, German troops occupied the Baltics and remained there until the end of the war when Soviet troops returned and ruled with an iron fist. The collapse of communism enabled the Baltic states to win their independence in 1991.
Bush also urged free elections in Belarus, which shares borders with Lithuania and Latvia, and ruled out any secret U.S deal with Moscow allowing President Alexander Lukashenko to remain in power. "We don't make secret deals," he said.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga wrote in the Washington Post on Saturday: "Russia would gain immensely by ... expressing its genuine regret for the crimes of the Soviet regime.
"Until Russia does so ... its relations with its immediate neighbours will remain uneasy at best."
But writing in the French daily Le Figaro, Putin dismissed calls for an apology and accused the Baltic countries of trying to justify their own government's "discriminatory and reprehensible policy" towards their Russian-speaking populations.
Police detained about 20 protesters from Latvia's big Russian minority after they hurled smoke bombs in a demonstration against Bush.
"Bush is a horror," said protest leader Beness Aija. Posters in another demonstration said: "Stop the war in Iraq."
But many Latvians welcome Bush. "It's important to recognise the struggle that our fathers had against communists and the Soviet Union," said Ugis Senbergs, a 50-year-old architect.