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Georgia: Maintaining Good Ties With Russia An Important Undercurrent Of Bush's Trip

Bush and Saakashvili on 9 May Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has hailed George W. Bush's visit as a "great political victory" for his country. Addressing crowds of supporters in Tbilisi yesterday, Bush said he values the Georgian leadership that emerged from the 2003 political upheaval as a strategic ally of the United States. However, the U.S. president also made it clear that it is equally important for his administration that Georgia not antagonize Russia.

Prague, 11 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Talking to reporters after seeing the U.S. president off at Tbilisi airport, President Saakashvili described Bush's visit as a diplomatic triumph.

"It was incredible to see the entire world focusing its attention on Georgia [for the past two days]," Saakashvili said. "This is really a great political victory. It is a victory for our people because, just like our revolution, it is our people who made this celebration."

Minutes before, Bush had praised U.S.-Georgian ties before tens of thousands of Tbilisi residents assembled on central Tavisupleba (Freedom) Square.

Not only had the U.S. president described Tbilisi as Washington's strategic ally in the global fight against terrorism, he had also emphasized how, in his eyes, the peaceful change of governments that Georgia witnessed in November 2003 serves as an example for other countries in the former Soviet Union and beyond.

"You're making many important contributions to freedom's cause," Bush said. "But your most important contribution is your example. In recent months, the world has marveled at 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."

Addressing the crowd minutes earlier, Saakashvili went even further, pledging Georgia's active support for U.S. strategic goals worldwide. "There is one thing I want to tell you. We are all collectively responsible before our countries," he said. "We are all responsible for spreading democracy throughout the world, starting with Belarus, whose people deserve freedom. We stood beside the people of Ukraine, and we will stand beside others, starting with North Korea and Cuba. This is support for democracy. Georgia will be America's main partner in spreading democracy across the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. That is our offer to you, Mr. President."

While noting Bush had focused his speech on freedom and democracy issues, commentators believe there was another, equally important message the U.S. president conveyed to the Georgian leadership -- that Tbilisi should maintain good ties with Moscow.

In an interview with the Tbilisi-based Imedi private television channel, parliamentary opposition leader Davit Gamkrelidze -- who met with Bush -- yesterday said Georgian-Russian relations were high on the U.S. president's agenda.

Addressing reporters today, Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili said she disagreed with those who see Bush's visit to Tbilisi as directed against Moscow.

"One important aspect of this visit is that it has shifted the focus," she said. "That is, our relations with [the United States] are equally important for the region as they are by themselves. This region -- the Black Sea region -- has now a strategic importance and no longer depends on our relations with Russia. This visit was not anti-Russian. It was [really] pro-Georgian. Bush underlined how important Georgia is for the region."

Ties between Moscow and Tbilisi significantly improved after Saakashvili was elected president in January 2004.

However, the change was short-lived. Relations soured because of Saakashvili's decision to send troops to Georgia's separatist republic of South Ossetia the following summer. The move sparked a series of armed clashes that threatened to degenerate into full-scale military operations.

Subsequent reports said the United States had urged the Georgian leader to de-escalate tensions and to recall his troops for fear of direct confrontation with Russia. Like Georgia's other breakaway republic of Abkhazia, South Ossetia has close ties with Moscow and most of its residents hold Russian passports.

While reasserting Washington's support for Georgia's territorial integrity, Bush yesterday reminded Saakashvili of his pledge to seek a peaceful solution to the South Ossetian and Abkhaz separatist conflicts.

"We respect Georgia's desire to join the institutions of Europe," Bush said. "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."

The U.S. president also urged Georgia not to force things while negotiating the closure of Russia's two remaining military bases in the country. Tbilisi last month announced that Moscow has agreed to vacate both facilities by 2008. But Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov later said it would take at least four years to do so.

Saakashvili has cited the base dispute to justify his decision to boycott the 9 May Moscow ceremonies to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Bush, who held talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 8 May, told Georgian leaders he had received assurances that Moscow is committed to reducing its military presence in the Caucasus in conformity with an agreement reached nearly six years ago at a summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

"[President Putin] reminded me that there is an agreement in place, the 1999 [Istanbul] agreement," Bush said. "He said that the Russians want to work with the [Georgian] government to fulfill their obligations in terms of that agreement. I think that's a commitment -- an important commitment -- for the people of Georgia to hear, and it shows there is grounds to work to get this issue resolved."

Russia's Interfax news agency yesterday quoted an unidentified high-ranking U.S. official as saying that while negotiating the closure of the Russian bases, Moscow and Tbilisi should concentrate "on what unites, rather that on what separates them."

These comments echoed remarks made by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the eve of Bush's visit to Georgia. Talking to CNN on 9 May, Rice said Washington is opposed to isolating Russia and that Bush would -- as he did in Latvia two days before -- urge Georgia to improve ties with Moscow.

Referring to the 1940 annexation of the Baltic states by the Soviet Union, Rice said painful reminiscences of the past should not fuel further disagreements, but should rather serve as a basis to move forward and improve ties.


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