TBILISI (Reuters)–President Bush on Tuesday saluted Georgia’s fledgling democracy as a "beacon of liberty" and backed efforts by the ex-Soviet republic to regain sovereignty peacefully over two pro-Moscow separatist regions.
But during a 19-hour visit in which he was acclaimed by cheering crowds–Bush significantly avoided open backing for his host–President Mikhail Saakashvili–in his demand for the speedy closure of two Russian bases on Georgia soil.
"The path of freedom you have chosen is not easy. But you will not travel it alone," Bush told at least 60,000 people at Freedom Square–focus of a "Rose Revolution" that installed Saakashvili’s pro-Western government almost 18 months ago.
The crowd–squeezed into the square and flowing beyond it–responded enthusiastically to the first visit by a sitting US president to the mountainous Caucasus state.
Groups of people sat behind the podium wearing red–white and blue outfits to form the US flag and the red-and-white Georgian banner as Bush recalled Georgia’s long independence struggle that led to its "people’s power" revolution.
"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," Bush said.
He said Washington encouraged Georgia’s closer cooperation with NATO–something Russia finds uncomfortable for a country in its own backyard and which it once ruled.
And–in what appeared to be a swipe at Kremlin support for the two rebel Georgian regions–Bush said: "The territory and sovereignty of Georgia must be respected by all nations."
Saakashvili has made the return to Tbilisi’s control of separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia central to his government’s program to lift Georgia out of years of decline.
Introducing Bush–the US-educated Saakashvili hailed "the history of a small but unbreakable nation’s fight for freedom" and thanked the United States for standing up for Georgia.
The Caucasus is home to a string of local conflicts arising from the collapse of the Soviet Union. Georgia borders Russia’s troubled Chechnya region and is on the route for a US-backed pipeline linking Caspian Sea oilfields to world markets.
"PHONE ANY TIME"
Bush told a joint news conference with Saakashvili the Georgian leader could phone him any time to seek his help on the disputes but suggested he also work with international bodies such as the United Nations to resolve the issue peacefully.
"The (Georgian) president has put a way forward that encourages autonomy and self government but does not encourage dividing up this great country. This seems to me…to be a very reasonable proposition," Bush said. He said the disputes should be resolved between the Georgian government and the separatist regions. "The United States cannot impose a solution nor would you want us to."
At the news conference–Bush avoided support for Georgia in its dispute with the Kremlin over the Russian bases on its soil–which Saakashvili has likened to an occupation.
Bush said he had discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin–who had replied that his government was working to fulfill its obligations under an earlier agreement.
"I think…that is an important commitment for the people of Georgia to hear," Bush said in remarks likely to disappoint Saakashvili. Bush arrived in Georgia on a four-nation European tour that also took in Latvia–the Netherlands and Russia–where on Monday he joined Putin and over 50 other world leaders to mark the 60th anniversary of the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Saakashvili snubbed Moscow’s lavish World War II anniversary party in protest over Russia’s failure to agree on withdrawal of its bases–which house some 3,000 troops.
In his speech in bright sunshine at Freedom Square–formerly known as Lenin Square–Bush said Georgia’s freedom struggle had inspired peoples ranging from Ukraine to Iraq and Kyrgyzstan.
The crowd reacted ecstatically–waving banners including "Mr. George W. Bush–you can save Georgia."
"It is great that the president of a superpower has come to visit us," said Nana Razmadze–a 54-year-old teacher. "We hope that things will get better for us and we can move forward. I think that from now on the world will look on us differently."
"This is a visit that should go down in history," said 46-year-old Merab Getsadze. "It’s been 200 years since Georgia was visited by such a high-ranking person. We hope we will be able to solve a lot of problems after this visit," he said.