RIGA, Latvia – Second-guessing Franklin D. Roosevelt (search), President Bush said Saturday the United States played a role in Europe's painful division after World War II — a decision that helped cause "one of the greatest wrongs of history" when the Soviet Union imposed its harsh rule across Central and Eastern Europe.
Bush said the lessons of the past will not be forgotten as the United States tries to spread freedom in the Middle East (search).
"We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations, appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability," the president said. "We have learned our lesson; no one's liberty is expendable. In the long run, our security and true stability depend on the freedom of others."
Bush singled out the 1945 Yalta agreement signed by Roosevelt in a speech opening a four-day trip focused on Monday's celebration in Moscow of the 60th anniversary of Nazi Germany's defeat.
In recent days Bush has urged Russia to own up to its wartime past. It appeared he decided to do the same, himself, to set an example for Vladimir Putin (search), the Russian president.
Bush also used his address to lecture Putin about his handling of the emergence of democratic countries on Russia's borders. "No good purpose is served by stirring up fears and exploiting old rivalries in this region," Bush said. "The interests of Russia and all nations are served by the growth of freedom that leads to prosperity and peace."
Bush spent the day with the leaders of three Baltic republics — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Many in the Baltic countries are still bitter about the Soviet annexation of their countries and the harsh occupation that followed the war for nearly 50 years. Acknowledging that anger and frustration still linger, Bush said that "we have a great opportunity to move beyond the past." His message here — and throughout his trip — is that the world is entering a new phase of freedom and all countries should get on board.
While history does not hide the U.S. role in Europe's division, American presidents have found little reason to discuss it before Bush's speech.
"Certainly it goes further than any president has gone," historian Alan Brinkley said from the U.S. "This has been a very common view of the far right for many years — that Yalta was a betrayal of freedom, that Roosevelt betrayed the hopes of generations."
Bush said the Yalta agreement, also signed by Britain's Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin, followed in the "unjust tradition" of other infamous war pacts that carved up the continent and left millions in oppression. The Yalta accord gave Stalin control of the whole of Eastern Europe, leading to criticism that Roosevelt had delivered millions of people to communist domination.
"Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable," the president said. "Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable."
Bush said the United States and its allies eventually recognized they could not be satisfied with the liberation of half of Europe and decided "we would not forget our friends behind an Iron Curtain."
The United States never forgot the Baltic peoples, Bush said, and flew the flags of free Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania over diplomatic missions in Washington.
"And when you joined hands in protest and the empire fell away," the president said, "the legacy of Yalta was finally buried, once and for all."
Putin, writing in a French newspaper Saturday, said the Soviet Union already made amends in 1989 and his country will not answer the demands of Baltic states for further repentance. "Such pretensions are useless," Putin wrote in Le Figaro.
Bush reminded Baltic countries that democracy brings obligations along with elections and independence. He said minority rights and equal justice must be protected, a nod to Moscow's concerns about the treatment of Russian-speakers in the three ex-Soviet republics.
Bush applauded the Baltics for supporting democracy in Ukraine and spoke approvingly of democracy progress in Georgia and Moldova.
At a news conference, Bush rejected the suggestion that Washington and Moscow work out a mutually agreeable way to bring democracy to Belarus — the former Soviet republic that Bush calls the "last remaining dictatorship in Europe."
"Secret deals to determine somebody else's fate — I think that's what we're lamenting here today, one of those secret deals among large powers that consigns people to a way of government," Bush said. He called for "free and open and fair" elections set for next year in Belarus, now run by authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.
Bush placed a wreath at the Latvian Freedom Monument, a towering obelisk symbolizing this small country's struggle for independence. While he is unpopular across much of Europe because of the Iraq war, Bush got a warm welcome here.
Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga presented Bush with the nation's top honor, the Three-Star Order, calling him a "signal fighter of freedom and democracy in the world."
Bush has irritated Russia by bracketing his visit to Moscow Sunday with stops in two former Soviet republics, Latvia and Georgia. He arrived in the Netherlands on Saturday night, ahead of a speech Sunday at an American cemetery.