Georgians Offer Bush Enthusiastic Welcome
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
TBILISI, Georgia — President Bush, before a cheering crowd of tens of thousands of people, said Tuesday that the former Soviet republic of Georgia is proving to the world that determined people can rise up and claim their freedom from oppressive rulers.
"Your courage is inspiring democratic reformers and sending a message that echoes across the world: Freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth," Bush said in speech from the Freedom Square that symbolizes the city's democratic pursuits.
"You gathered here armed with nothing but roses and the power of your convictions and you claimed your liberty. And because you acted, Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world."
In a line that appeared directed at Russian President Vladimir Putin (search), Bush declined to support the bid of two separatist regions aligned with Moscow to gain independence from Georgia.
"The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected ... by all nations," Bush said.
Freedom Square is where hundreds of thousands gathered after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and again last year when the protests ousted Eduard Shevardnadze (search) from office.
Bush spoke to a massive crowd that filled the square — known as Lenin Square during Soviet rule — and spilled out into the roads that feed into the plaza.
The buildings around the square were freshly painted for Bush's visit, the first from a U.S. president, and hundreds of people dressed in red, white and blue stood in a human formation of the U.S. flag, with another group forming the red and white Georgian flag.
"When Georgians gathered here 16 years ago, this square had a different name," Bush said. "Under Lenin's steely gaze, thousands of Georgians prayed and sang and demanded their independence. The Soviet army crushed that day of protest, but they could not crush the spirit of the Georgian people."
He hoped the speech would balance his presence a day earlier at a World War II victory celebration in Moscow's Red Square and close his four-nation trip on a high note.
Estimates of the crowd size — in the square and the surrounding streets — varied wildly, from less than 100,000 to more than 300,000. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili (search) said it was by far the largest gathering ever in the country, and it was certainly one of the largest Bush has ever addressed.
Saakashvili, who led the Rose Revolution (search) in 2003 that overthrew a corrupt government, praised Bush as "a leader who has contributed as much to the cause of freedom as any man of our time. ... We welcome a freedom fighter."
"You stood with us during our revolution and you stand with us today," Saakashvili said. "On behalf of my nation I would like to say, `Thank you.'"
Saakashvili was elected president in a landslide in January 2004 after leading mass street protests against a fraudulent election. Ukraine's Orange Revolution (search) that forced the defeat of a Moscow-backed candidate followed last year. Then Kyrgyzsgtan (search) saw a popular uprising this year against an authoritarian regime.
Seeking to shed Kremlin domination, the 36-year-old Saakashvili is looking West for help as he tries to remake a nation that gained a reputation under Soviet times and afterward as a poor, corruption-plagued backwater.
Ongoing fights in violent separatist regions, military campaigns against terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge (search) and the recent abductions of foreigners presented security challenges that required Bush to deliver his open-air speech from a podium surrounded by a high wall of a clear bulletproof screen with sharpshooters on rooftops surrounding the square.
But the safety concerns were outweighed by Bush's desire to lend support to this ex-Soviet satellite and hold it up as a success story in his pursuit of spreading democracy.
"You are making many important contributions to freedom's cause, but your most important contribution is your example," Bush said. "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 (search) in Lebanon, there was the Rose Revolution in Georgia.
"Now across the Caucasus, in central Asia and the broader Middle East we see the same desire of liberty burning in the hearts of young people," Bush said. "They are demanding their freedom, and they will have it."
In the crowd was something that would have been unthinkable before independence — a sign of protest. In black letters, written on sheet, "U.S. in Azerbaijan — Profits or Principle," a reference to American interest in the energy-rich nation that borders Georgia on the south.
While Bush has faced large protests during his visits to other foreign nations, the crowd in Freedom Square was overwhelmingly enthusiastic to host the U.S. leader. The people waited hours in the heat to hear him speak.
Nino Gabriashvili, a mother of four daughters, said she was inspired by Bush's call for all nations to respect Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty.
"That means something coming from the American president — the Russians will have to listen," she said.
After Bush spoke, the U.S. national anthem was played. When a recording of Georgia's national anthem malfunctioned, Saakashvili motioned to choirs in the crowd. The singers soon were joined by others in the audience and the anthem was sung a cappella. Bush smiled at the touching recovery, then waved to the crowd and headed to the airport for his flight back to Washington.