By William J. Kole
The Associated Press
VIENNA, Austria - Leaders, former dissidents and ordinary citizens across eastern Europe expressed gratitude to Ronald Reagan for helping to end decades of "evil empire" Communism and Cold War-era oppression.
Most of the region threw off Communist rule in 1989. That was the year Reagan retired from a presidency marked by determination to loosen the grip of the Soviet Union through diplomacy, an intimidating space-based, nuclear-missile defense system and unrelenting appeals to the masses via Radio Free Europe.
As the world paused to remember the sacrifices of Allied troops 60 years ago on D-Day, leaders such as former Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban reflected on Reagan's influence in bringing democracy to those starved for it behind the Iron Curtain.
"Hungary and Europe do not forget Ronald Reagan's help and his support for the former Communist countries," Orban, 41, said Saturday.
In 1983, Reagan stunned the world by denouncing the Kremlin as an "evil empire" whose nuclear arsenal threatened the globe.
In 1987, in a speech at the Berlin Wall, he challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: "If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization ... tear down this wall."
Throughout, the Reagan administration devoted manpower and cash to quietly expanding its contacts in East bloc countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia.
"He is the one who allowed the breakup of the Soviet Union. May God rest his soul," said Bogdan Chireac, a foreign affairs analyst for the Romanian newspaper Adevarul.
Reagan appointed a deputy secretary of state to shuttle in and out of the region and encouraged others to do the same. He poured millions of dollars into programming by Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, using the airwaves to encourage fledgling pro-democracy movements such as Poland's Solidarity.
"During his administration, U.S. citizens at all levels and of all walks of life - politicians, senators, journalists, academics - systematically and repeatedly were visiting Czechoslovakia and other Communist countries, meeting the dissidents and the opposition," former Czech dissident Jiri Dienstbier said.
"Their open support was very important for our safety and for our position in society."
As his presidency wound down, Reagan lashed out at Communism in eastern Europe as "an artificial economic and political system, long imposed on these people against their will."
Within a year, the Berlin Wall had fallen.
"Mr. Reagan, along with Pope John Paul II, was one of the architects who dismantled Communism in eastern Europe and stopped the expansion of the Soviet Union," said Ivo Samson, a Slovak Foreign Policy Association analyst.
Said Petko Bocharov, a prominent Bulgarian journalist: "The fact that today Bulgaria is a member of NATO could happen only after the efforts of this great American president. His name will forever remain in history."
There were some bumps on the road to freedom.
In 1984, while testing a microphone, Reagan cracked a joke that didn't sit well with the Soviets at the height of the nuclear arms race: "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."
His administration was criticized by human rights activists for waiting until early 1989, the year the brutal Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled and executed, to withdraw that country's "most favored nation" trade status.
But his speeches stirred a generation.
"For us, Reagan was important because we knew he was really anti-Communist, emotionally anti-Communist," Czech computer specialist Zdenek Kosina, 65, said. "For us, he was a symbol of the United States' genuine determination to bring communism to an end."
Laurentiu Ivan, 35, a customs officer in the Romanian capital, struggled to describe Reagan's legacy and then said: "It is due to him that we are free."
Associated Press reporters Karel Janicek and Nadia Rybarova in the Czech Republic; Pablo Gorondi in Hungary; Veselin Toshkov in Bulgaria; and Andrea Dudikova in Slovakia contributed to this story.
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