Bush urges elections in Belarus

By Joseph Curl


RIGA, Latvia -- President Bush yesterday urged Russia to support democratic nations on its borders and called for free elections in Belarus, a Russian outpost the president labeled "the last dictatorship in Europe."

Standing beside the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- all freed from communist occupation after the Soviet Union fell in 1991 -- Mr. Bush said: "All the nations that border Russia will benefit from the spread of democratic values -- and so will Russia itself.

"Together, we have set a firm and confident standard: Repression has no place on this continent," he said in a joint press conference at a Riga cultural center.

Belarus gained independence in 1991, but has retained close economic and political ties with Moscow. The country, which has borders with Latvia and Lithuania, has been ruled since 1994 by the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko, who has said he intends to hold onto power until 2010.

While Mr. Bush said the United States will not make "secret deals" with nations to topple Mr. Lukashenko, he added that the people of Belarus "should be allowed to express themselves in free and open and fair elections."

The president had some firm directives for the Baltic leaders, each of whom governs a nation relatively new to democracy. Reminding them of the oppression they suffered at the hands of the Soviets, Mr. Bush urged the leaders to move beyond past bitterness and embrace minorities -- including Russians, who make up as much as a third of each nation's population.

"Whatever the historical causes, yours is now a multiethnic society, as I have seen on my visit," he said to Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga. "No wrongs of the past should ever be allowed to divide you, or to slow your remarkable progress."

For several weeks before the presidential visit, Baltic leaders had demanded that Russian President Vladimir Putin apologize for Soviet occupation after World War II, which occurred after a secret pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia that divided up spheres of influence in Eastern Europe.

The bitterness runs so deep that the presidents of Lithuania and Estonia will boycott ceremonies in Moscow tomorrow to celebrate the official end of World War II.

In his own mea culpa, Mr. Bush acknowledged that the United States played a role in the occupation of the Baltics, citing the Yalta accord signed by Soviet leader Josef Stalin, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt, which set forth the postwar reorganization of Europe.

"Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable," he said. "Yet this attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability left a continent divided and unstable. The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history."

Still, the president's acknowledgment of American culpability sets up what likely will be a tense meeting tomorrow with Mr. Putin. The Russian president refuses to offer an apology to the Baltic states, saying on Friday that "the only thing we hear now is that our country must admit the illegality of these decisions and condemn them."

"I repeat: We have already done so. Must we do this every day, every year?"

But the Russian leader did offer a small concession about the secret pact that plunged half of Europe into Soviet oppression.

"In effect, these Baltic countries were treated as pawns in world politics. And that is a tragedy for these nations. This must be stated plainly," Mr. Putin said in an interview with two German television networks.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush held bilateral talks with the Latvian president, who awarded him the "Three-Star Order" -- the country's highest honor.

The two leaders also laid a wreath at Freedom Monument, a 160-foot-tall column that was the site of the first pro-independence protest against Soviet rule in August 1987.

Police arrested about 30 protesters from a radical, pro-Russian group, the National Bolsheviks, after they hurled smoke bombs in a central street in one of scattered demonstrations against Mr. Bush.

Late yesterday, the president flew to the Netherlands to pay tribute to American soldiers who died in World War II.