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Georgia: Bush Hails Tbilisi's Role In Spread Of Democracy

  • Robert Parsons

http://gdb.rferl.org/4EABC426-7120-4C9D-BC44-85AA693E1485_w203.jpg --> http://gdb.rferl.org/4EABC426-7120-4C9D-BC44-85AA693E1485_mw800_mh600.jpg Tbilisi, 10 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush wrapped up his tour of Europe with a visit to Georgia, where he was greeted today by thousands of people in the center of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili described the visit as a political triumph for his country.

The tens of thousands of people who gathered Tuesday in bright spring sunshine in Tbilisi's Tavisupleba (Freedom) Square let out a huge roar as Bush and Saakashvili finally appeared, flanked by giant American and Georgian flags.

From the moment he spoke, George Bush could do no wrong.

"Laura [Bush] and I were in the neighborhood, and we thought we'd swing by and say, 'Gamardjoba [Good morning].'" Bush said.

Bush continued as the crowd cheered: "I am proud to stand beside a president who has shown such spirit, determination, and leadership in the cause of freedom."

Saakashvili stood smiling behind Bush -- the visit is already being hailed in Georgia as a massive diplomatic triumph. Saakashvili praised the U.S. leader as a visionary and a freedom fighter who had come to Georgia as a friend.

"Throughout history, this city has been visited by the leaders of many empires, but they all came to Georgia as conquerors. Today, for the first time in the history of Georgia stands the leader of the world's greatest power. I am proud to welcome him here," Saakashvili said.
"We respect Georgia's desire to join the institutions of Europe. We encourage your closer cooperation with NATO." -- President Bush


Ordinary Georgians appeared to share his enthusiasm. The verdict in the crowd gathered to listen to George Bush left little room for doubt.

"The visit has left a great impression," one Geogian man said. "The whole nation is happy he came."

"We're delighted he honored such a small country as ours by coming here," said a Georgian woman. "We want to thank him for giving us so much attention."

"He has left a brilliant impression," another Georgian man offered. "Everything was really good and I think the entire Georgian nation is delighted by George Bush's visit."

But Bush had come to Tbilisi first and foremost to underscore Georgia's contribution to the spread of democracy through the region and the rest of the former Soviet Union.

"In recent months, the world has marveled at the hopeful changes taking place from Baghdad to Beirut to Bishkek. But before there was a Purple Revolution in Iraq or an Orange Revolution in Ukraine, or a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, there was the Rose Revolution in Georgia," Bush said.

Saakashvili assured Bush of Georgia's committed support. Georgia, he said, would be America's partner in spreading democracy around the world.

In the wake of the criticism Bush has faced since the invasion of Iraq, Saakashvili's unstinting praise of the United States must have been music to his ears. "We want you to know," he said, "that we admire the sacrifices Americans have made in the struggle for freedom in Iraq."

Democratic Challenge

But Bush also warned Georgians that the road ahead will be long and hard. The real challenge, he said, is to build the institutions that will embed democracy in a secure foundation. Georgia, he said, has already taken the first steps.

"You have taken tough steps to reform your economy and to crack down on corruption. You are building a democratic society where the rights of minorities are respected, where a free press flourishes, a vigorous opposition is welcome, and unity is achieved through peace. In this new Georgia, the rule of law will prevail and freedom will be the birthright of every citizen," Bush said.

President Saakashvili's critics in Georgia were hoping today that he is proved right.

"I believe that promises made by Georgian president -- in this case made in front of hundreds of thousands of people on the streets and in front of the U.S. president and the whole delegation," said Tina Khidasheli, a member of the opposition Republican Party. "It's an important promise that we might consider is a promise for real democratic reforms undertaken in this country. It is probably the last chance we have to shake our government and to believe and to see that -- we, this country does not have a future if it is not democratic and it is not based on the freedoms of the people living in this country."

Traditionally, Russia has regarded Georgia as part of its backyard, and many in Moscow see the Bush visit as another sign of Washington's increasingly bold intrusion into the former Soviet republics.

Saakashvili makes little secret that he sees the United States as a bulwark in Georgia's resistance to Russian pressure. His aim is for Georgia to be incorporated into NATO and the European Union.

Today, Bush went some of the way toward encouraging Georgia's ambitions, while also saying it is essential to its future integration into the West that it solves its separatist conflicts peacefully.

"We respect Georgia's desire to join the institutions of Europe. We encourage your closer cooperation with NATO. Georgia's leaders know that the peaceful resolution of conflicts is essential to your integration into the trans-Atlantic community. At the same time, the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia must be respected by all nations," Bush said.

Earlier today, Saakashvili reiterated a pledge to restore Georgia's authority over the two secessionist republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia through peaceful means. Both provinces, which have close ties with Russia, forcefully seceded from Georgia in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Saakashvili last year ordered troops into South Ossetia. The armed clashes that followed claimed the lives of at least 16 Georgian soldiers and an undisclosed number of South Ossetians.

Though his speech may have been short on substance, it was the rhetoric the vast crowd in Freedom Square had come to hear, and Bush didn't let them down.

"I have come here to thank you for your courage. The American people value your friendship and admire your determination. On behalf of all Americans -- thank you, God bless you, 'gaumarjos sakartvelos,'" Bush said.

Bush flew into Tbilisi following visits to four other nations, including commemorations in Moscow marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II.

Related stories:

Reporter's Notebook: 'Not An Ordinary State Visit'

Analysis: Bush Gives Georgia Half A Loaf

Bush: Russia Committed To Vacate Georgian Bases

Analysis: Georgian Parliament Ups Ante On Russian Bases

In Focus: Georgia's Bloodless Coup
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