WASHINGTON -- President Bush declared yesterday that the United States has a responsibility to nurture the young democracies of the newly independent Baltic nations and pledged to start the process by normalizing trade relations and creating a Peace Corps for the Baltics.
At a White House tribute to the Baltic diplomats here who kept alive the symbols of their countries' sovereignty despite a 51-year occupation by the Soviet Union, Mr. Bush also promised to work for the quick release of $61 million in gold reserves
held for safekeeping in the United States after Soviet annexation of the Baltics in 1940.
"This is a very joyous day," the president said in his first meeting with the representatives of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania since the Soviet government officially freed them last week. "It's been a pleasure to contemplate this."
The president also announced later yesterday a $35 million housing-guarantee program for Central and Eastern Europe, most of which would be set aside this year for Poland.
Following Mr. Bush's meeting with Polish Prime Minister Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, the White House said that the president wanted to make clear that help for the Baltics or the Soviet Union would not come at the expense of the former Communist countries that have already begun the difficult transition to capitalism.
Mr. Bush took some criticism for waiting until just days before the Soviets acted to join much of the rest of the world in opening diplomatic ties with the three Baltic states.
But he insisted yesterday that the United States had played a valuable role in according symbolic status to the Baltic states' long-time diplomats here: Ernest Jaakson, Estonian consul general; Anatol Dinbergs, Latvian charge d'affaires; and Stasys Lozaraitis Jr., Lithuania's charge d'affaires.
"When they would come to these receptions, people would wonder about it, but I'm proud that the United States always had them there," Mr. Bush said at a gathering that included leaders of the Baltic-American community. "They were a reminder, in person and in group, a reminder of the need to press forward for freedom."
The next step, Mr. Bush said, is to integrate the Baltics into the West by helping with the transformation of their economies from state-run to free-market. As with the newly emerging democracies of Eastern Europe, he didn't offer direct financial relief but did offer trade benefits and technical expertise.
That's chiefly what they want right now, according to Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., who returned yesterday from a seven-day trip to the Baltics and several Soviet republics.
Despite projections that the Baltics would immediately seek "billions and billions of dollars" from the United States, Mr. Hoyer said, "all of the leaders and representatives we met with talked to us about investment, about expertise."