New York Times
May 11, 2005
TBILISI, Georgia, May 10 - President Bush told tens of thousands of cheering Georgians packed into the city's Freedom Square on Tuesday that the United States would stand with Georgia, a former Soviet republic, as it built its young democracy, and then pointedly he warned President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia that the sovereignty of Georgia "must be respected by all nations."
On the last stop of a five-day trip that also included visits to Russia, Latvia and the Netherlands, Mr. Bush sought to tie the democratic movements in Georgia and other former Soviet republics to his vision for democracy in the Middle East and around the world. He spoke from the square where Georgians gathered in November 2003 for the "Rose Revolution," when Mikheil Saakashvili carried roses as he stormed into Parliament and displaced President Eduard A. Shevardnadze in a bloodless coup.
"We are living in historic times when freedom is advancing, from the Black Sea to the Caspian, and to the Persian Gulf and beyond," Mr. Bush said. "As you watch free people gathering in squares like this across the world, waving their nations' flags and demanding their God-given rights, you can take pride in this fact: they have been inspired by your example and they take hope in your success."
The White House, which has often scheduled the last stops on Mr. Bush's European trips in the former Communist countries where the president remains highly popular, had planned the Tbilisi speech to serve as a final feel-good picture before Mr. Bush headed west across Europe and the Atlantic for home.
The Georgians did not disappoint. On a hot spring day, the boisterous, largely youthful crowd - said to be one of the largest ever to gather in Georgia - seemed unaware or did not care that the Bush administration steadfastly backed Mr. Shevardnadze in 2003, refusing to meet with the pro-democracy forces until after the former Soviet foreign minister had fled. Mr. Saakashvili, a 37-year-old lawyer who studied at Columbia and was the main benefactor of Mr. Bush's visit, estimated that as many as 150,000 people had come to see Mr. Bush, the first American president to visit his country.
Behind the president was Tbilisi's City Hall, its windows draped with American and Georgian flags. To Mr. Bush's right, carefully positioned for the television cameras, was an enormous White House-created backdrop emblazoned with the words "Celebrating Freedom and Democracy." Throughout the square were banners and pictures of roses. Mr. Bush spoke from an outdoor stage that appeared to be protected by bulletproof glass.
Mr. Bush's warning to Mr. Putin, his host only 24 hours before at the 60th anniversary celebration of the defeat of Germany, was focused on two separatist enclaves within Georgia's borders, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that are aligned with Moscow. Earlier in the day, at a joint news conference with Mr. Saakashvili in the Parliament building, Mr. Bush embraced the Georgian president's plan for the enclaves to become autonomous and self-governing, but not independent. He noted with approval that Mr. Saakashvili wanted the country "to remain intact."
Mr. Bush's words were immediately criticized by the president of Abkhazia, Sergei Bagapsh, who told the Interfax news agency that "the Abkhaz people have already opted for an independent state at a referendum, and this choice should be respected."
Mr. Bush took a careful stance on the even more delicate issue of the two Russian military bases on Georgian soil that the Georgians want removed. The two countries are negotiating, but Mr. Saakashvili boycotted the 60th anniversary celebration in Red Square to protest a lack of progress. Mr. Bush said at the news conference that he had spoken to Mr. Putin about the matter.
"He reminded me that there is an agreement in place - a 1999 agreement," Mr. Bush said. "He said that the Russians want to work with the government to fulfill their obligations in terms of that agreement. I think that's a commitment that's important for the people of Georgia to hear. It shows there's grounds to work to get this issue resolved."
The day's big event in Freedom Square was marred by technical problems in a country that has struggled to bring its infrastructure and utilities up to 21st-century standards. A speech that Mr. Saakashvili delivered before Mr. Bush spoke went largely unheard because the public address system failed and was not fixed until the end of his remarks.
The loudspeakers failed again when the Georgian national anthem was played, and for a moment the crowd stood in silence. But then some people began to sing it out loud, and the rest of the crowd joined in.
In his remarks, Mr. Bush warned Georgians that for all their recent success, elections were only the beginning. "While peaceful revolutions can bring down repressive regimes, the real changes and the real challenge is to build up free institutions in their place," Mr. Bush said. "This is difficult work, and you are undertaking it with dignity and determination."
Mr. Saakashvili has been praised for attacking the country's long-term corruption, modernizing the military, increasing tax collection and instituting standardized testing in schools, but his country has also been criticized by Human Rights Watch for the use of torture and a plea-bargaining system that allows defendants in criminal cases to pay the government to avoid a trial.