RIGA, Latvia – President Bush, ignoring Moscow's objections about his trip to former Soviet republics, said Friday that Russia should treat its neighbors with respect and not fear the rise of new democracies along its borders.
Bush opened a fast-paced, four-country journey to mark the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany. He will meet on Saturday with the leaders of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia (search).
For these Baltic countries, the end of World War II (search) did not bring liberation. Instead, they traded Nazi oppression for nearly five decades of Soviet occupation.
Bush said he has reminded Russian President Vladimir Putin (search) about that history, ahead of the victory celebrations. "Frankly, it's the beginning of a difficult period, and I can understand why some leaders of countries aren't going and some others are," the president said of the anniversary events. He spoke in a series of pre-trip interviews with television outlets in countries he will visit.
Lithuania's President Valdas Adamkus and Estonia's President Arnold Ruutel say they will stay home when dozens of world leaders — Bush included — go to Moscow for a parade Monday in Red Square (search) honoring Russia's enormous sacrifices to defeat the Nazis.
Bush's trip has been clouded by Moscow's unhappiness about his stops in two former Soviet republics — Latvia and Georgia, a move seen by Russia as interference in its neighborhood. The president also will visit the Netherlands. Bush said he would tell Putin he should welcome peaceful democracies on Russia's borders.
"And so I will remind him that this is not a plot by anybody or any nation," Bush said. "This is just the inevitable course of humankind because all humans want to be free."
Bush said the three Baltic countries, as new members of NATO, have a security guarantee from the United States and its allies. Bush said he speaks with Putin frequently about the Baltics.
"And my job at times is to send a message that says, look, treat your neighbors with respect," Bush said. "Free nations, democracies on your border are good for you — whether that be, by the way, in the Baltics or in Ukraine, I've sent that same message — or Georgia. In other words, countries that are free countries are countries that will be good neighbors."
At the same time, Bush said he would tell Baltic leaders that democracy must include respect for minority rights, a nod to Moscow's concerns about the treatment of Russian-speakers in the ex-Soviet republics.
Bush, in an interview on Russian television, acknowledged that the United States and Britain played a major role in reshaping Europe at the 1943 Yalta conference of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. "I think that the main complaint would be that the form of government that the Baltics had to live under was not of their choosing," Bush said. "But, no, there's no question three leaders made the decision."
Dan Fried, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said on Air Force One that there are competing narratives about how World War II was won and the aftermath. "We have our dark spots too, just like the Russians, but we admit it," Fried said. He said the Russians do not.
Russia refuses to apologize for occupying the Baltics, insisting that the Baltic governments of the time had willingly invited Soviet troops into their countries and agreed to join the Soviet Union. Baltic leaders says that if Russia wants glory for defeating the Nazis, it also should take responsibility for the occupation.
Putin said Moscow already has condemned the secret Soviet-Nazi pact that led to the occupation. In an interview published Friday, he said the Soviet-era legislature, the Supreme Soviet, had issued a resolution in 1989 that criticized the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact as "a personal decision by Stalin that contradicted the interests of the Soviet people."
"I want to repeat: We already did it," Putin said. "What, we have to do this every day, every year?"
Bush will lay a wreath Saturday at Latvia's towering Freedom Monument, which served as a symbol of resistance in the difficult struggle for independence.
Bush's trip to Latvia, the Netherlands, Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia was designed to meet a variety of diplomatic needs.