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Georgia: Bush Urges Russia To Withdraw Its Forces

  • Andrew Tully

Meeting with reporters yesterday at the White House, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and U.S. President George W. Bush had nothing but praise for each other and were eager to pledge mutual cooperation. Bush went so far as to stand up for Georgia's long-standing demand that Russia withdraw its troops from the country. Was Russian President Vladimir Putin listening?

Washington, 26 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's Oval Office appearance began with Bush praising the peaceful "Rose Revolution" that eventually brought Saakashvili to the presidency.

Saakashvili added that cooperation between the two countries is deep, and that Georgia is proud to be a friend and ally of the United States. "Our cooperation and friendship is not only about security, it's not only about economy. Primarily it's about our shared values," the Georgian leader said.

"If you have the sense that you are placing Russia as the 'other,' that, combined with a sense of pressure, could spark a backlash."
Soon Bush was asked about the "Istanbul commitment" of 1999, under which Russia agreed to withdraw its forces from Georgia. Bush replied: "We expect the Russian government to honor the Istanbul commitment. The Istanbul commitment made it very clear that Russia would leave those bases. We will continue to work with [Georgian] President [Saakashvili] and [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin on that commitment."

Bush also noted that Saakashvili's first trip abroad as president was to Moscow. He said that was a "positive" and "sophisticated" move, aimed at ensuring continued good relations between the two countries.

The Georgian leader elaborated on this theme, saying: "We are also working very hard on our improved relations with Russia. I had a very interesting conversation with President Putin in Moscow, and I believe Russia should become our reliable partner and we should improve our relations."

But one analyst says Bush and Saakashvili might have chosen their words more carefully. James Goldgeier, a professor of political science and international relations at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says Russia has a long history of responding unfavorably to foreign pressure. He says an observer might possibly interpret Bush's reference to the Istanbul commitment as pressure, although he added that "in the context of diplomacy," Bush's phrasing is "more acceptable. It's not ultimatum-type language."

But Goldgeier says Putin could very well interpret Bush's words negatively in the context of what Saakashvili said about Georgians and Americans sharing the same values. According to Goldgeier, Russians have long resented any hint from a Westerner that they do not share Western values, that they are somehow outside the political and social mainstream of the 21st-century world.

If Putin interprets Saakashvili drawing a line between American values and Russian values, Goldgeier says, then the Georgian president may have to wait some time to see the last of Russian troops on his soil. "If you have the sense that you are placing Russia as the 'other,'" Goldgeier said, "that, combined with a sense of pressure, could spark a backlash."

During their session with reporters, Bush and Saakashvili pledged mutual cooperation in economic and defense issues, including the war against international terrorism. The Georgian president thanked Bush for being helpful during the protests last year that eventually led to the resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze as president and last month's election, in which Saakashvili was elected as his successor.

"Regarding our revolution, it was the proudest moment of my own life and of the life of the whole generation. And we are so proud that we were supported in our fight for democracy and for the people's right to choose by the United States, and Washington was the first to come and help us, and I'm sure we'll never forget it," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili asked Bush for continued help so that Georgia could become a strong as well as a loyal ally of the United States, and become what he called a role model for the entire Caucasus region. Bush replied that the people of Georgia already have set a good example for their neighbors by avoiding bloodshed in persuading Shevardnadze to resign and holding a credible election in which Saakashvili was chosen to replace him.