Bush Pushes Democracy During Baltic Visit

On the eve of a meeting with Russian President Putin in Moscow, President Bush hails democracy in Latvia, one of the three Baltic states occupied by the Soviet Union for decades. He also denounced the Yalta agreement that allowed Soviet dominion over Eastern Europe after World War II.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

President Bush is in Europe this weekend on a mission to remember history, the fall of a dictator and the spread of freedom. But Mr. Bush has stepped into a dispute over that history between Russia and its neighbors. NPR's White House correspondent Don Gonyea filed this report from Riga.

DON GONYEA reporting:

In the center of this Latvian capital city is a giant obelisk. It stands 42 meters high and is the symbol of Latvian independence. It was erected in 1935, but just a few years later, the country saw occupation, first by the Soviet Union, then by Nazi Germany and then by the Soviets again. Today on the first morning of this European tour, President Bush placed a garland of flowers at the base of the memorial.

(Soundbite of ceremony)

GONYEA: It was enactment to demonstrate an understanding of the history of the Baltic states and the suffering they endured that, as Mr. Bush travels to Moscow tomorrow to celebrate the defeat of the Nazis, he knows that here in the Baltics the feeling of celebration is muted because Hitler's rule was replaced by that of Stalin. The president addressed that in his speech in Riga today, criticizing not just the secret deal between Hitler and Stalin that divided up Europe in 1939 but also the Yalta agreement worked out between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the end of the war which left Eastern Europe under Soviet control.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivities of million in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history.

GONYEA: This visit has sparked a sometimes heated back and forth between Russia and the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. They feel that Vladimir Putin should apologize for a Soviet-era occupation and tyranny. Putin responds that the former Soviet Union did that 15 years ago, and he accuses the Baltics of treating ethnic Russians living here poorly. Relations between Russia and the Baltics remain tense. At a news conference with his Baltic counterparts here today, President Bush says it's something he has talked to Putin about.

Pres. BUSH: Countries ought to feel comfortable with having democracies on their borders. After all, democracies are peaceful countries. Democracies don't fight each other. And democracies are good neighbors.

GONYEA: But the White House wouldn't say if the president will bring up the issue of an apology for the occupation of the three Baltic states when he sits down with Putin tomorrow night. The Russians also had criticism for President Bush this week. The Russian foreign minister has sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice objecting to the president's visit here, and to the former Soviet republic of Georgia next week. Today Mr. Bush was asked if the US is improperly using its influence to stir up pro-democracy protests in the region in places like Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan.

Pres. BUSH: Freedom is etched in everybody's soul, and the idea of countries helping others become free--I would hope that would be viewed as not revolutionary but rational foreign policy, as decent foreign policy, as humane foreign policy.

GONYEA: The president, as he has in the past, pointed to the spread of democracy in Europe as an example for Iraq in the Middle East. He said the lesson of the past is that no one's liberty is expendable, that there can be no excusing tyranny in exchange for stability.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Riga.

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