Bush Praises Georgians’ ‘Courage’

Times Staff Writer

Tens of thousands of citizens in this former Soviet republic waved American flags Tuesday as President Bush pledged to support their progress toward democracy in a land that he said once suffered “under Lenin’s steely gaze.”

The scene in Tbilisi’s Freedom Square made for a dramatic final act of a nearly weeklong European trip in which Bush sought to build international support for his goal of promoting democracy worldwide.

The overflow crowd crammed the square hours in advance in a scene reminiscent of Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003, when Georgian protesters fed up with government corruption and economic woes stormed the nearby parliament building bearing flowers as a symbol of peaceful regime change. President Eduard A. Shevardnadze was ousted and replaced by Mikheil Saakashvili, who hailed Bush as a “freedom fighter.”


Bush told Georgians they were an example to other nations that yearn for democracy, citing countries in the Middle East in particular. He noted that the Rose Revolution was followed by similar transitions in Ukraine and elsewhere.

“In recent months, the world has marveled at the hopeful changes taking place from Baghdad to Beirut to Bishkek [Kyrgyzstan],” he said. “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.

“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,” he said.

The president, surrounded by bulletproof glass, spoke slowly, pausing often for a translation. In the backdrop, people had donned red, white and blue outfits to create massive images of the Georgian and U.S. flags.

After the event, Georgian authorities notified U.S. officials of a report that during Bush’s speech, “a device described as a possible hand grenade was thrown within 100 feet of the stage,” Secret Service spokeswoman Lorie Lewis said.

Lewis said the service had not seen the object. A Georgian security officer was reported to have picked it up after it hit someone in the crowd and dropped to the ground. There was no explosion. U.S. agents in Tbilisi were investigating the report with Georgian authorities.


The sound system in the square, which had faltered during Saakashvili’s speech, finally failed just before the playing of the Georgian national anthem. The crowd burst into song to end the ceremonies.

Bush embraced a bit of the native tongue, beginning and ending his speech with local expressions. But the scene also illustrated the global cross-pressures that persisted through the American leader’s trip.

On Monday, Bush sat with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow’s Red Square to honor World War II military victories by the very Soviet empire that once ruled Georgia and other republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia that Bush predicted Tuesday would become democratic.

Although Bush has feuded with Putin in recent months over the Russian’s moves to concentrate domestic power in Moscow, the two leaders tried to appear cordial this week, acknowledging that they need each other to tackle issues like nuclear proliferation.

Bush sought to straddle competing policy interests, sprinkling his statements over the course of the week with language meant to both satisfy and gently criticize all sides. In Latvia, he said Russia should welcome democratic neighbors, not fear them. He spoke with Putin about the continued presence of Russian bases in Georgia, an issue that kept Saakashvili away from the festivities in Moscow.

But Bush also admonished the post-Soviet republics on their treatment of ethnic minorities, a hot topic among ethnic Russians who believe that they face discrimination in countries that border Russia.


On Tuesday here in the Georgian capital, Bush took a jab at Russia’s intentions toward this country, saying the territory and “sovereignty of Georgia must be respected by all nations.”

Bush’s appearance, the first here by a U.S. president, was carried live on Georgian TV throughout the day. It marked an unusually friendly overseas reception for a leader whose policies since the Sept. 11 attacks have sparked bitter opposition in many nations.

Bush’s visit offered Saakashvili a chance to cast his country as an example for nearby nations that have not moved toward democracy and to showcase a nascent economy seeking investment. However, some critics questioned how democratic Georgia has become.

A survey by Human Rights Watch recorded recent allegations of torture committed by police, and officials with the group said Georgian media are not fully free of government influence. The opposition party remains weak.

“It’s in some ways the same old story,” said Rachel Denber, acting director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. If Bush and the U.S. do not continue to apply pressure for change in Georgia, she said, it would be a “missed opportunity.” One member of parliament, David Bakradze, conceded that the nation has far to go.

“We feel very uncomfortable with the fact that there is no strong, credible opposition,” he said in an interview. “When there is no such criticism, you have to be very cautious not to make mistakes.”


Saakashvili defended his record. He said his country had one of the “most vicious and free medias in the region” and pointed to police officers who model their equipment, clothing and behavior after U.S. police.

“This country will get rewarded for being democratic, for solving things peacefully, for having a peaceful transition, for being much less corrupt than it used to be,” he said.

Times staff writer Edwin Chen in Washington contributed to this report.