RIGA, Latvia -- President Bush condemned the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe after World War II but acknowledged yesterday that the United States bore some blame for the ''division of Europe into armed camps" and vowed never again to trade freedom for stability.
On the eve of a visit to Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, Bush escalated an increasingly pointed long-distance debate with President Vladimir Putin of Russia over the legacy of the end of World War II. With Putin refusing to renounce the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states, Bush tried to provide a model for expressing contrition for past national mistakes.
In a speech to Latvian leaders, Bush cited the US role at the Yalta conference in 1945 that is widely seen as having paved the way for the Soviet Union to dominate not only the Baltic states but also Eastern Europe for nearly half a century. And to make the point that the United States owns up to ''the injustices of our history," he reminded his audience -- and by extension Putin -- of the shameful heritage of American slavery and centuries of racial oppression.
''The agreement at Yalta followed in the unjust tradition of Munich and the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact," Bush said, linking it to British appeasement and Soviet deal-cutting with Adolf Hitler in the late 1930s. ''Once again, when powerful governments negotiated, the freedom of small nations was somehow expendable. . . . The captivity of millions in Central and Eastern Europe will be remembered as one of the greatest wrongs of history."
Bush connected the struggles against Nazi and Communist despotism in this part of the world to his own campaign to bring democracy to the Middle East. ''We will not repeat the mistakes of other generations -- appeasing or excusing tyranny, and sacrificing freedom in the vain pursuit of stability," he said.
Bush scheduled his stop here as a way of tempering his participation in Monday's anniversary celebration in Moscow's Red Square, but the trip has ended up reopening old wounds between Moscow and the Baltic states, which were absorbed into the Soviet Union in 1940 after the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop deal between Hitler and Joseph Stalin in 1939. The agreement provided for Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, part of Finland, and later Lithuania in return for Nazi Germany's control over most of Poland.
In recent days, US officials tried to persuade Putin to renounce the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in a goodwill gesture to the Baltic states. But the Russian leader not only refused, his government reprised the old Soviet assertion that it never occupied Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia because they asked to join the Soviet Union, an assertion that has outraged people here. The Soviet Union declared the pact null and void 16 years ago.
''Our people not only defended their homeland, but also liberated 11 countries of Europe," Putin said at a ceremony yesterday unveiling a new World War II memorial in Moscow, according to the Interfax news service.
In describing Yalta as an example of American misjudgment, Bush revived a dispute over the extent of US culpability in consigning Eastern Europe to Soviet domination. Stalin hosted Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Crimean city in February 1945 to decide the fate of postwar Europe. When the war ended, the continent was left split in half.