RIGA, Latvia, May 7 -- President Bush condemned the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe after World War II but acknowledged Saturday that the United States bore some blame for the "division of Europe into armed camps" and vowed never again to trade freedom for stability.
On the eve of a visit to Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, Bush escalated an increasingly pointed long-distance debate with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the true legacy of the end of World War II. With Putin refusing to renounce the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, Bush tried to provide a model for expressing contrition for past national mistakes.
In a speech to Latvian leaders, Bush cited the U.S. role at the Yalta conference in 1945, which is widely seen as having paved the way for the Soviet Union to dominate not only the Baltic states but also Eastern Europe for nearly half a century. And to make the point that the United States owns up to "the injustices of our history," he reminded his audience -- and by extension Putin -- of the shameful heritage of American slavery and centuries of racial oppression.
"The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact," Bush said, linking it to British appeasement and Soviet deal-cutting with Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s. "Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. 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."
Bush connected the struggles against Nazi and Communist despotism in this part of the world to his own campaign to bring democracy to the Middle East. "We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations -- appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability," he said. "We have learned our lesson. No one's liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security, and true stability, depend on the freedom of others."
Bush scheduled his stop here as a way of tempering his participation in Monday's anniversary celebration in Moscow's Red Square, but the trip has reopened old wounds between Moscow and the Baltic states, which were absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940 after the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop deal between Hitler and Joseph Stalin in 1939. The agreement provided for Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, part of Finland and later Lithuania in return for Nazi Germany's control over most of Poland.
In recent days, U.S. officials tried to persuade Putin to renounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in a goodwill gesture to the Baltic states. The Russian leader not only refused, but his government also reprised the old Soviet assertion that it never occupied Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia because they asked to join the Soviet Union, an assertion that has outraged people here. The Soviet Union declared the pact null and void 16 years ago.
"Our people not only defended their homeland, but also liberated 11 countries of Europe," Putin said Saturday at a ceremony to unveil a new World War II memorial in Moscow, according to the Interfax news service.
In describing Yalta as an example of American misjudgment, Bush revived a long-standing dispute over the extent of U.S. culpability in consigning Eastern Europe to Soviet domination. Stalin hosted Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Crimean city of Yalta in February 1945 to decide the fate of postwar Europe. When the war ended, the continent was left split in half.
Many critics, particularly Republicans, maintain that Roosevelt effectively sold out Eastern Europe at Yalta, while defenders say the conference simply recognized the reality on the ground given that the Red Army already controlled the territory. Others point out that the Yalta agreement included Soviet commitments to free elections in countries like Poland, obligations it broke. That was the view of past presidents, including Ronald Reagan.
"Let me state emphatically, we reject any interpretation of the Yalta agreement that suggests American consent for the division of Europe into spheres of influence," Reagan said in August 1984. "On the contrary, we see that agreement as a pledge by the three great powers to restore full independence, and to allow free and democratic elections in all countries liberated from the Nazis after World War II."
Bush, by contrast, said "the legacy of Yalta was finally buried, once and for all," only when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and the Baltic states won their independence.
In another implicit riposte to Putin's defensiveness about Soviet actions, Bush noted the "lengthy and violent" American journey to democracy, including the "enslavement of millions" and the legal segregation that followed. "Americans found that racial division almost destroyed us, and the false doctrine of 'separate but equal' was no basis for a strong and unified country," he said.
The president's visit to this picturesque seaside city of cobblestone streets and castles was punctuated by many testaments to the past. After receiving Latvia's highest medal, Bush accompanied President Vaira Vike-Freiberga to lay wreaths at Freedom Monument, a towering obelisk constructed in 1935 during the brief period of Baltic independence between the world wars. First lady Laura Bush visited a Holocaust memorial to the victims of a Nazi regime her husband described as "an empire of bottomless cruelty" that "defined evil for the ages."
Most of the city was empty as fences were thrown up around the downtown and hundreds of police officers in blue coats and yellow vests stood watch. One of the few Latvian citizens still in town, a gray-haired woman in a pink wool cap, held up a large hand-drawn sign along Bush's motorcade route condemning Soviet occupation: "We Latvians Want to be Free -- And Not Slaves!!"
Bush later left Riga bound for Maastricht, in the Netherlands, where on Sunday he will visit a cemetery of U.S. soldiers killed in World War II before flying to Moscow for dinner with Putin. While Vike-Freiberga will also attend the events in Moscow, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus and Estonian President Arnold Ruutel refused to go.
Few places in Europe are more pro-American than the Baltic states, all of which joined NATO last year and have contributed forces to the U.S.-led mission in Iraq. Yet in a nod to Russian sensibilities, Bush used the occasion to gently urge all three countries to do more to respect the rights of their Russian minorities, a particularly volatile issue in Latvia, where many ethnic Russians still do not have citizenship and complain about Latvian language requirements.
"While keeping your Latvian identity and language," Bush said, "you have a responsibility to reach out to all who share the future of Latvia."
He had tougher words for another neighboring country, Belarus, a flat expanse of farms and factories south of here ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko, an open admirer of Stalin often described as the last dictator in Europe. "Repression has no place on this continent," Bush said. Belarusans "deserve the same freedom you have."
Referring to recent democratic revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, Bush vowed to continue helping opposition forces working to topple authoritarian regimes and urged Russia to make peace with the "freedom movement" spreading around its borders.
Although U.S. officials usually disclaim responsibility for fomenting uprisings in Moscow's sphere, Bush essentially embraced it. "The idea of countries helping others become free, I would hope that would be viewed as not revolutionary," he said, "but rational foreign policy, as decent foreign policy, as humane foreign policy."