New York, 27 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Recollecting his first visit to the U.S. Congress as a young Georgian deputy in 1996, President Mikheil Saakashvili said that visit could not have been more different than his trip this week.
"We've been walking through the corridors of Congress yesterday and the day before yesterday, and I don't want not to look modest, but if Britney Spears had been walking there at that moment, she would have attracted less attention than we got from otherwise sometimes bored senators and house members," Saakashvili said.
"We've been walking through the corridors of Congress yesterday and the day before yesterday, and I don't want not to look modest, but if Britney Spears had been walking there at that moment, she would have attracted less attention than we got from otherwise sometimes bored senators and house members."
He said the reason the Georgian delegation was so warmly received this time around was because in the three months since the so-called Revolution of Roses that ousted his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, Georgia has suddenly become an "exciting place.”
"The first lesson is that we could survive the succession challenge, which is arguably the single greatest challenge to any transition nation and in particular to those in the states of the former Soviet Union. Many [nations] in our neighborhood seem to have trouble with these issues, with presidents not knowing when to leave or having no desire whatsoever to leave, and political opposition unable to unite or imagine a better future outside the concept of inside deal-making or some dirty deals with the government and sometimes resorting to force," Saakashvili said.
With the "Revolution of Roses," Saakashvili said, Georgia proved that political transition can be peaceful. More importantly, he added, the revolution was about people fighting for freedom of speech, rule of law, and the right to choose their leaders. "What the former government never understood, never grasped and never believed in was that democracy, in order to succeed and be genuine, must be derived from the people and be responsible to the people," he said.
Georgia, Saakashvili said, faces tough challenges in reform. He said the first step was tackling government reform, by rooting out corruption and cutting down on the bureaucracy and red tape that allows it to flourish. Saakashvili said the current crackdown on corrupt government officials was only a beginning, and that the system must be reformed in order to ensure that the future government works in a manner that is both transparent and responsible.
On security issues, Saakashvili said he would begin work to restore Georgia's full territorial integrity using peaceful means. He said good relations were particularly essential with Russia. "While I have no illusions that our relations will be transformed overnight, I do see that the door is open for new and more positive relations," he said. "Georgia is ready to cooperate with Russia and is ready to meet Russia halfway on many issues."
Saakashvili said common interests with Russia include improving the security situation, fighting terrorism, and working on economic growth.
Bilateral ties have weakened over the past decade. But the Georgian leader said as long as Russia respects Georgia's national sovereignty and abides by international commitments to remove its military bases from the country, he believes common ground can always be found between the two countries.