President Bush Praises Democracy in Georgia
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
President Bush today was in Tbilisi, the capital of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where he delivered a speech before a cheering crowd.
(Soundbite of speech)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Mr. President, thank you for that introduction. Citizens of a free Georgia, Laura and I were in the neighborhood and we thought we'd swing by and say (foreign language spoken).
(Soundbite of crowd cheering)
INSKEEP: It's the final step of the president's European tour and it is where the so-called Rose Revolution brought a young, reformed-minded leader to power 18 months ago. NPR's Don Gonyea has been watching the speech and other celebrations in Tbilisi.
Don, what was the scene like there today?
DON GONYEA reporting:
Well, tens of thousands of people were just jammed into Freedom Square. And this is a very significant setting. It's the site of one of the key events of that peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003. It's also the site of the 1989 killing by Soviet troops of 16 Georgians who were back then demonstrating for independence from the Soviet Union. So the setting very significant. The crowd seemed mostly young. People started arriving really early in the morning for a 1 PM speech. They waved US flags. They waved Georgian flags. The whole place was spruced up with new paint, and I can tell you they were very excited about this first-ever visit to this country by a president of the Untied States.
INSKEEP: And the president, of course, had considerable praise for Georgia's new government in the new leader, Mikhail Sakashvili. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of speech)
Pres. BUSH: 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.
(Soundbite of applause)
GONYEA: President Bush talked about the need for a popular movement toward democracy to continue and for the crackdown on corruption to continue, because it was corruption really that actually brought down the last government back a year and a half ago. But he also stressed that the path to freedom is not easy, as he put it, and he said the American people will be right there with Georgia.
INSKEEP: And, Don, is this why the president chose this particular country, this particular former Soviet republic to finish his trip?
GONYEA: Certainly it is a great place for him to hold up as an example. It also, though, allows him to end this European trip on a real high note. He was just in Russia where there were that big celebration, the Red Square parade commemorating the victory of Nazi--over Nazi Germany 60 years ago. But the president there in Moscow was mostly a spectator. At this stop at a US ally right in the neighborhood, the kind of place where the public is really thrilled to have President Bush visit--it really puts a big exclamation point on the end of the trip.
INSKEEP: Well, Don, you mentioned that the president was just in Russia. Russia and Georgia have strained relations recently. What has the president been saying about that?
GONYEA: Yeah, those relations have not been good at all for a long time. Russia, in fact, was not at all pleased that President Bush decided to come here right from his trip to Moscow where he, again, took part in all of those celebrations marking 60 years since the end of World War II in Europe.
A big issue here is the presence of three Russian military bases within Georgia. They have, like, 2,500 troops here still, Russian troops. They're troops--they're bases, rather, that are kind of left over from that Soviet era when this was a Soviet republic. There was an agreement to close those bases back in 1999, but the bases are still here. President Bush said today he's talked to Putin about that, Vladimir Putin, and that there is a commitment from Putin to live up to his obligations under that deal. So there's that issue. Also, Georgia is dealing with a pair of Russian-backed separatist regions. Those regions want to break away from Georgia. The president got his biggest cheers, I think, during his speech in the square when he said, `There must be a peaceful resolution, but that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected.' That got a huge cheer here today.
INSKEEP: Don, thanks very much.
GONYEA: My pleasure.
GONYEA: As always, NPR's White House corespondent, Don Gonyea, is with the president in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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