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Bush: Baltics betrayed by transfer to Soviet control

President on four-nation trip to commemorate end of WWII

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Bush tells Baltic leaders Americans "recognize your painful history."
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RIGA, Latvia (CNN) -- President Bush, in a speech to the Latvian people on Saturday, called three Baltic nations' transfer to Soviet control after World War II '"one of the greatest wrongs of history."

"The Baltic countries have seen one of the most dramatic transformations in modern history, from captive nations to NATO allies and E.U. [European Union] members in little more than a decade," Bush said.

He was in Riga, Latvia, speaking at a press conference with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Lithuanian President Valdus Adamkus and Estonian President Arnold Ruutel, after meeting with the three leaders.

Bush referred to the 1945 conference at Yalta, often cited as the beginning of the Cold War, and acknowledged the United States' role in it.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt participated in the conference, along with Soviet leader Josef Stalin and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and FDR later faced criticism for what critics saw as giving Eastern Europe away to Stalin.

The conference, he said, resulted in the captivity of millions -- "one of the greatest wrongs of history." Bush also called Soviet oppression "evil."

"When powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable," he said.

"We have a great opportunity to move beyond the past and learn the lessons of that painful history," he told reporters. The countries were annexed by Moscow after the fall of Nazism and chafed for decades under the Kremlin's iron-fisted rule.

"The Baltic peoples kept a long vigil of suffering and hope," Bush said. "Though you lived in isolation, you were not alone. The United States refused to recognize your occupation."

Bush, on the first leg of a politically sensitive European trip marking the end of World War II, earlier told reporters the end of the war 60 years ago "meant peace" for much of the world but "brought occupation and communist oppression" to the Baltic states.

Kremlin's concerns

In answer to a reporter's question about Russia's displeasure with Bush's trip to Latvia, he said he would "continue to speak as clearly as I can to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin that it's in his country's interests that there be democracies on his borders."

"The idea of countries helping others become free, I hope that would be viewed as not revolutionary, but rational foreign policy, as decent foreign policy, as humane foreign policy," Bush said.

The Kremlin has expressed concern about Bush's visits to Latvia and Georgia, which the president will also visit on this trip, because of Moscow's strained relationships with its former satellites.

Russian officials also have objected to Bush's use of the word occupation in reference to the fate of the Baltics. (Full story)

Baltic leaders have urged Putin to renounce a 1939 pact between Russia and Nazi Germany that led to communist rule in their countries. The Associated Press reported that Putin told German television that Russia had renounced that deal in 1989. (Full story)

Bush also called for free elections, set for next year, in the former Soviet republic of Belarus, which his administration has repeatedly referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe.

The people of Belarus "should be allowed to express themselves in free and open and fair elections," Bush said.

Three Star Order

Earlier, Vike-Freiberga presented Bush with her country's highest honor, the "Three Star Order," calling him a "signal fighter of freedom and democracy in the world."

"I admire your country's courage," said Bush, who along with Vike-Freiberga laid wreaths at the foot of Freedom Monument, a towering obelisk that marks the country's independence from communist rule.

After his talks in Lativa, Bush flew to the Netherlands where he landed Saturday evening. There, as part of the events marking V-E Day (for victory in Europe), Bush plans to lay a wreath at the Netherlands American cemetery on Sunday. Later he will join world leaders for a victory celebration in Moscow that will include a military parade in Red Square.

Bush also is scheduled to visit Georgia before returning to the United States.

CNN's Dana Bash and John King contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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