TBILISI (Reuters)–President Bush flew to the small ex-Soviet republic of Georgia on Monday for a visit being hailed as a pointed show of Washington’s support for democratic freedoms in Russia’s backyard.
Bush–making the first visit to Georgia by a U.S. president–arrived aboard Air Force One from Moscow–where he took part in celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
At Tbilisi airport–decorated with Stars and Stripes flags–he was greeted by President Mikhail Saakashvili–the pro-Western leader catapulted to power 18 months ago in a "Rose Revolution" who has since been trying to shake off the Kremlin’s influence. Saakashvili boycotted the Moscow festivities because the Kremlin refused to bow to his deman’s for the immediate withdrawal of two Russian military bases on Georgian soil. Moscow has about 3,000 troops in the Soviet-era bases–which Saakashvili has likened to an "occupation" of his country. The United States has dozens of military trainers in Georgia.
Georgia is in the turbulent Caucasus region–scene of a clutch of local conflicts that grew from the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also on the route for a U.S.-backed pipeline linking the oilfields of the Caspian Sea to world markets.
"This visit means a lot," Giga Bokeria–a Georgian parliamentarian and close Saakashvili associate–told Reuters.
"It is a message that we are not alone in our struggle to become a decent democracy … a sovereign country on which no one can impose their will. I am talking about Russia here," he said.
SPEECH IN SQUARE
The highlight of the 24-hour visit will be on Tuesday–when Bush addresses the Georgian people on Tbilisi’s Liberty Square beneath a massive banner that reads: "Celebrating Democracy and Freedom."
It was from that square in November 2003 that crowds of people marched on Georgia’s parliament–forcing the resignation of veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze. Georgia’s peaceful revolution created the template for fellow ex-Soviet republics Ukraine and Moldova to turn their backs on Moscow and pursue integration with the West. The Bush administration has indicated it would be happy to see power change hands elsewhere in the former Soviet Union with Belarus–described by Washington as central Europe’s last dictatorship–at the top of its list.
In Georgia–a state of 5 million that saw its economy implode after independence in 1991–most people were eagerly awaiting the Bush visit. The new leadership is tackling corruption but economic reforms are proving painful.
Tbilisi was soaked by rain on Monday but officials say if the weather improves more than 50,000 people will come to hear Bush speak on Tuesday.
Lamp-posts along the city’s main streets were decorated with Georgian and U.S. flags while crews have worked round the clock to repair the potholed roads.
Policemen in fluorescent rain capes lined the streets in what locals said was the biggest security operation they could remember.
"We are very pleased that such an important person is visiting us. The United States is Georgia’s main partner and we hope America will help us solve our problems with Russia," said Lali Khestsuriani–a 42-year-old doctor.