President Bush told Lithuanian TV that Belarus (search) is the "last remaining dictatorship in Europe" and that the United States will work with countries in the region to ensure that the next elections there are free.

The former Soviet republic is run by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko (search).

"One of the roles the United States can play is to speak fairly about the need for Belarus to be free ... and make sure that the elections are free," Bush said in an interview broadcast Thursday and recorded the previous day in Washington.

"That is the last remaining dictatorship in Europe," Bush said.

The next presidential elections in Belarus are set for 2006.

"We will work with you, countries in the neighborhood, the free countries in the world, to insist for the free elections," the president said.

During a visit to Lithuania two weeks ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Belarusian dissidents and called for change in Belarus, which Lukashenko has ruled for 11 years.

In the interview with Lithuanian state television, Bush also said he will remind Russian President Vladimir Putin about the Soviet occupation of the Baltics when they meet in Moscow for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe.

The May 9 holiday, Victory Day (search), is revered by the Russians as an unequivocal celebration of the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany, while for residents of the Baltic countries the end of the war led to decades of harsh rule by Moscow.

Bush said he will stress to the Russian leader that the end of the war did not bring freedom for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

"Yes, of course I'll remind him of that," Bush said, adding that he told Putin during their last meeting in Slovakia that the end of World War II was not a day of celebration for the Baltics.

The U.S. president is to visit Latvia on Friday ahead of his trip to Moscow. He will meet with his Baltic counterparts, two of whom have declined invitations to the Moscow celebrations because of Russia's unwillingness to denounce the Soviet annexation of their countries.

Bush said he understood Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus' decision not to attend the celebrations and added he hopes Russia will maintain good relations with its Baltic neighbors.

"It really is in Russia's interests to have free countries and democracies on her border," Bush said.

Russia denied Thursday that it illegally annexed the Baltic nations in 1940.

"One cannot use the term 'occupation' to describe those historical events," said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Russia's point man on relations with the European Union.

"At that time, the troop deployment took place on an agreed basis and with the clearly expressed agreement of the existing authorities in the Baltic republics," Yastrzhembsky said in Moscow.

Lithuanian state television said Bush praised Lithuania for its support in bringing Ukraine on a path to democracy and said he expects the Baltic country to help ensure free elections in neighboring Belarus.