Georgia a Beacon of Liberty For The World, Bush Says

By Sergei Blagov | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Moscow ( - Georgia is a symbol of freedom around the world, President Bush told 150,000 Georgians gathered in Tbilisi's Freedom Square Tuesday.

In a speech that began with a few words in Georgian, Bush hailed the "Rose Revolution" which brought democratic change to the former Soviet Republic, a strategically located country of 4.4 million people.

The fight of the Georgian people for freedom was an example for the world's nations, Bush said.

" 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 ," said Bush.

He said the courage of the Georgian people sent a message around the globe, and the country's experience would also help to transform the greater Middle East region.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was equally lavish in his praise , calling Bush "a leader who has contributed as much to the cause of freedom as any man of our time."

Saakashvili thanked America for its support. "You stood with us during our revolution and you stand with us today. On behalf of my nation I would like to say, 'Thank you .'"

The "1049 Rose Revolution" of November deposed Saakashvili's patron, former President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Viewed by many in the West as a reform-minded foreign minister as the Soviet era ended, Shevardnadze was accused of having had a hand in rigging the 2003 parliamentary poll, in which his allies gained about half of the votes.

Shevardnadze tried to declare a state of emergency, calling opposition actions a coup d'etat. But Georgia's national guard and the U.S.-trained elite Defense Ministry special forces rallied to opposition protesters.

The 75-year-old president had no other choice but to hand over power.

Saakashvili, 36, who led street protests against the fraudulent election , was elected president in a landslide in January 2004 , gaining 96 percent of the popular vote.

To Moscow's discomfort, two other former Soviet republics subsequently followed Georgia's example. Ukraine 's "Orange Revolution" last year forced the removal of a Moscow-backed candidate , and Kyrgyzsgtan saw a popular uprising this year against an authoritarian regime.

Bush argued that Russia would benefit from the emergence of new democracies in neighboring states. "When you have peaceful countries on your border, you benefit," he said.

Bush's symbolic visit comes at a time when Georgia and Russia continue to wrangle over when Moscow will close the last two Soviet-era military bases it maintains in the country.

Saakashvili boycotted Monday's World War II victory celebrations in Moscow to protest President Vladimir Putin's reluctance to speed up the base withdrawals.

At an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe summit in 1999, Russia pledged to shut down its four bases in Georgia. Two were since closed, but around 3,000 Russian military personnel are still deployed at the last two.

Russian official media have suggested that the Kremlin worries the Russian troops could be replaced by NATO forces - yet another step in a perceived "encirclement" of Russia by the West.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov says it could take up to four years to build the infrastructure in Russia to accommodate the personnel and equipment to be withdrawn from Georgia.

During his visit, Bush avoided openly backing Saakashvili's demand for the speedy closure of the bases.

He did, however, voice support for Georgia's efforts to win back two pro-Russian separatist regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected ... by all nations ," Bush said, suggesting that international bodies such as the United Nations be brought in to resolve the issue peacefully.

He said Saakashvili's offers of autonomy and self-government to the regions, rather than "dividing up this great country," seemed to be "a very reasonable proposition."

Georgian politicians have accused Russia of meddling in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Commenting on Bush's statement in Tbilisi, Abkhaz leader Sergei Bagapsh said Tuesday his breakaway region's independence was non-negotiable.

Another sensitive issue in Georgia is the U.S.-backed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, a project to link Baku, Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, via Georgia.

Designed to carry up to one million barrels of crude oil a day, the pipeline will bypass Russia in bringing oil from the landlocked Caspian oilfields, via the world's longest oil pipelines, to world markets via the Mediterranean ports.

Russia is strongly opposed to the project, which it claims is not economically viable. It wants Caspian oil funneled through Russian oil export pipelines, leading to the Black Sea port of Novorosiisk.

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