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Georgia: Saakashvili Meets Bush In Washington

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, making his first official visit to Washington since taking office, is set to meet with President George W. Bush today at the White House. RFE/RL reports that the talks are expected to touch on a range of pressing security and economic issues.

Washington, 25 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Saakashvili, a U.S.-educated lawyer, won applause and laughs yesterday as he tuned up for his first official meeting with President George W. Bush by giving an animated speech at a Washington university.

The 36-year-old former justice minister peacefully rose to power last November to oust former President Eduard Shevardnadze in what has been dubbed Georgia's "Revolution of Roses."

"Not through exporting revolutions, but rather by providing an example that democracy and stability, prosperity and respect for human dignity are possible in our region of the world."
Speaking at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Saakashvili said Georgia is now poised to become a vital beacon of stability, economic progress, and democracy in the Caucasus and across the former Soviet Union.

The great lesson about his rise to power, Saakashvili said, is that it showed people across the former Soviet Union that a peaceful, democratic succession of political power is possible. "In establishing a model of good governance, we have the ability to bring positive change to an entire region," he said. "Not through exporting revolutions, but rather by providing an example that democracy and stability, prosperity and respect for human dignity are possible in our region of the world."

Saakashvili is set to meet Bush at the White House to discuss the fight against terrorism, Caspian energy issues, regional conflicts, and democratic and economic reforms in Georgia.

A former student at George Washington University here, Saakashvili called his return to the U.S. capital a "most special homecoming." He urged the United States to continue to play a central role in Georgia's transition to a stable, economically viable, and fully independent democracy.

The U.S. government and private organizations have poured millions of dollars into Georgian economic and democracy programs since independence. Saakashvili said one of the most vital contributions has come in the last two years as Washington funded the training of Georgian police and military personnel in an effort to stabilize the country's lawless areas, such as the Pankisi Gorge, which in near Chechnya.

Earlier yesterday, Saakashvili said that U.S. Army instructors will train thousands more troops under a new five-year deal. He said the new program is set to begin in April. The program would appear to contradict statements made last month in Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who gave assurances that the United States had no plans to establish a long-term presence in Georgia.

Still, the Washington-Tbilisi relationship is so close that Saakashvili elicited a roar of laughter when he explained that on a recent trip to Moscow, he could not persuade some lower-level Russian officials that Washington or the CIA had absolutely no hand in the Revolution of Roses.

"I had very good talks with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin," Saakashvili said. “But when I spoke to many of the Russian officials, I understood after a while that I could convince them of many things -- like Georgia genuinely wants to be friends with Russia, that we have joint, common interests, etc. -- but in many ways I could not convince them of a sole thing: that the Rose Revolution was not a CIA-sponsored and -financed coup that was organized by the Americans. But after a while, I thought, 'Maybe it's even better that they think it this way.'"

But in an indication of the challenges Saakashvili faces as he seeks to win further U.S. support, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, told him that Washington's lasting support should not be taken for granted. For America to continue to strongly support Tbilisi, Brzezinski said that Georgians themselves must make a major effort to strengthen their country's independence, stability and democracy. "The next phase, which falls within your tenure in office, perhaps is the most difficult of all," he said. "It is to capture America's enduring strategic commitment to the future of Georgia. That's going to be a difficult phase."

But Saakashvili has also made no secret of his desire to end the poor state of relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. He reiterated that his government is keen on improving relations with Russia, which has thousands of troops on Georgian soil in Abkhazia, and to achieving territorial integrity without having to revert to military force.

"After my trip to Moscow, I have hope that a new era of relations is commencing, one that is based on pragmatism and mutual recognition of shared common interests. While I have no illusions that our relationship will be transformed overnight, I do see that the door is open for new and more positive relations. Georgia is ready to cooperate with Russia and is ready to meet the Russians halfway on many issues," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili expressed confidence that the central government can peacefully resolve issues in Adjaria and South Ossetia, where independent-minded provincial leaders continue to challenge Tbilisi's authority. He said that if people in those provinces voted on the matter, they would clearly state their preference for being in Georgia.

But Abkhazia is a different matter and will require a great deal of patience, Saakashvili said. However, he added that he believes the matter will eventually be resolved because he is confident that Putin will honor Russia's pledge to remove its troops from Georgia.

The White House says Bush and Saakashvili will also explore ways to deepen cooperation with Russia, Turkey, and other European countries.

Zeyno Baran is a Georgia expert at the Nixon Center in Washington. She told RFE/RL that Washington has been making it clear to Moscow that Russia should remove the troops. "On the one hand, the U.S. wants to cooperate with Russia as much as possible," she said. "On the other hand, it is taking a much more firm position about the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova [and] Georgia, based on the OSCE timetables."

As for his meeting with Bush, Saakashvili said he will make clear Georgia's commitment to fighting corruption, improving its security and stability, reviving its economy, and entering NATO and the European Union. He is also expected to ask for further U.S. aid commitments beyond the $164 million already allocated to Tbilisi this year.