The occupation by the Soviet Union of the Baltic states at the end of World War II was "one of the greatest wrongs in history," US President Bush said in a speech Saturday in the Latvian capital.
Bush with Latvian President Vike-Freiberga in Riga
"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," Bush said in the 14th-century Small Guild building in Riga's Old Town.
"V-E Day marked the end of fascism, but not the end of
oppression. The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact," he said.
The Yalta pact, which was signed by Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin, Britain's Winston Churchill and US wartime president Franklin D. Roosevelt in the waning months of the war, redrew the map of post-war Europe, giving much of eastern and central Europe to Moscow.
"Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable," Bush said. "The captivity of millions in central and eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history."
Bush has acknowledged several times during his one-day stay in Latvia that the end of the war may have brought peace to Western Europe, but at the same time it meant communist occupation of the Baltic states.
"I love the fact that you're a free nation"
The US president is on a four-day visit of Europe to participate in events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and to highlight the US role in defeating Nazi Germany. On May 8, he will be in the Netherlands for a speech at the military cemetery at Margraten, where more than 8,000 US soldiers, killed during the allied assault on Germany, are buried.
From there he will head to Moscow on May 9 for celebrations organized by Russia.
Earlier, after holding talks with Latvian President Vera Vike-Freiberga at the 700-year-old Riga Castle, Bush laid a wreath at Latvia's Freedom Monument in the centre of the capital, unveiled in 1935 during Latvia's brief period of independence between the world wars and seen as a symbol of statehood and independence.
After paying a silent tribute to those who have fallen for an
independent Latvia, the US leader signed autographs and chatted with the crowd of more than 100 who had gathered at the 42-metre (140-foot) high statue, crowned with three stars of liberty.
Bush went into closed-door summit-level talks with the Latvian leader, Estonia's President Arnold Ruutel and Lithuania's Valdas Adamkus in the early afternoon.
Earlier, at Riga Castle, Bush said after being bestowed the Three Star Order, Latvia's highest distinction: "I am honoured to be with a president that speaks so clearly for the need for people to be free, in recognition that free people will live at peace. I admire your country's courage. I love the fact that you're a free nation and willing to speak out so clearly for freedom," Bush said.
Vike-Freiberga has called Bush's choice to make the Baltics the first stop on his lightning tour of Europe a powerful sign that the US shares a common vision of post-World War II history with the Baltic states.
"By coming to Latvia, US President George Bush has underscored the double meaning of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War... the dual meaning of the date," she said.
"There was no occupation"
Bush's remarks are expected to irk Moscow before lavish celebrations on Monday of the 1945 victory over the Nazis.
Soviet authority was first established in the Baltics in 1940, following a secret pact between Stalin and Nazi Germany. The three republics were then held by German forces between June 1941 and 1945, when the victorious Red Army returned, placing the region under Moscow's control until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Baltic states want Moscow to recognize their annexation as illegal -- a request that has been turned down by Russia.
On Thursday, the Kremlin's European affairs chief, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, struck a strident note.
"There was no occupation," he told reporters. "There were agreements at the time with the legitimately elected authorities in the Baltic countries."
The defiant statement has upped the ante in a growing dispute with the European Union, including the three tiny Baltic republics -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania -- and the United States, which want Moscow to recognize that the Red Army occupied swathes of eastern Europe in the wake of the retreating Nazis.
Municipal workers create huge signs for Monday's celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Allies' World War II victory in Europe.
Far from being a dry historical debate, the row about the nature of Soviet rule in the Baltics is spiraling into a full-scale diplomatic spat ahead of next Monday's lavish Victory Day celebrations. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants the event, in which some 60 world leaders will watch a Red Square military parade, to showcase Russia's historic contribution to defeating Nazi Germany and to boost Russia's international standing.
Bush understands Baltic countries
But the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia, Valdas Adamkus and Arnold Rüütel, refused to come, while Latvia's President Vaira Vike-Freiberga says she will use the occasion to remind the world "that at the end of Second World War half of Europe was not liberated."
On Thursday, Bush said the United States understands Estonia's decision to stay away from celebrations marking the end of World War II in Moscow because of the country's five decades under repressive Soviet rule.
"I can understand the decision of your president, and that of the president of Lithuania and the president of Latvia," Bush said in the interview on Estonian television when asked to comment after the leaders of Estonia and Lithuania declined Moscow's invitation to the VE-Day ceremonies on Monday.
"It's a difficult decision and it reflects difficult times," Bush added. "I honour these decisions."
Bush said many Baltic families in America had seen their countries lose independence at the end of World War II.
"On the one hand, our country helped defeat fascism, but on the other hand, they saw their homeland taken over by repressive ideology," Bush said.
In a letter to Estonian President Arnold Rüütel, Bush said his trip to Europe, due to start Friday, "will mark the sacrifice of America and many other nations in defeating Nazism."
European Commission vice-president Günter Verheugen said earlier this week that Moscow's relations with Brussels would depend on Russia admitting the illegality of Soviet rule in the Baltics.
Bush's signal to Moscow
Since gaining independence in 1991, the three Baltic nations have broken out of the sphere of Russian influence and joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.
The stock exchange in Riga
For Bush's administration, they represent the new post-Soviet European architecture. Bush's visit to Latvia on Saturday, a first by a US president since 1994, is thus seen as a strong signal to Moscow to respect the independence of the three former Soviet Republics and their inclusion in the West's sphere of influence.