President Bush in Post-Soviet Georgia

President Bush's visit to the former Soviet Union satellite republic of Georgia was seen by some as a rebuff to Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom the United States believes has backpedaled on promises to speed up democracy. Ed Gordon speaks to Lawrence Sheets about how Bush was received in Russia and Georgia.

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ED GORDON, host:

President Bush is returning from visiting Europe and Russia. During his trip, he honored the 27 million Russians who died fighting the Nazis. The president's visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia was also seen by some as a rebuff to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who the United States believes has backpedaled on promises to speed up democracy. Here's the president earlier today in Tbilisi.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: You are building a democratic society where the rights of minorities are respected, where a free press flourishes, a vigorous opposition is welcome and unity is achieved through peace.

GORDON: I spoke earlier with NPR's Lawrence Sheets about the president's trip.

LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:

I think the biggest surprise of the trip for President Bush was the reception that he got here in Georgia. We knew that he was going to get a warm reception. They've been working on this visit for weeks here in Georgia, sprucing up the city, spending millions of dollars refurbishing roads the president would travel and the buildings along the way, which have been decrepit for many years now, this being a very poor, economically run-down country.

I think President Bush was surprised himself, though, with the reception. It was a very warm reception. We saw none of the protests that we see over American foreign policy which are characteristic of the president's travels wherever he goes around the world. Instead we saw hundreds of ten--we saw thousands of people lining the motorcade route on the way into the center of the city last night and the president taken directly to a traditional folk dance celebration in the heart of the old town, the 1,000-year-old sulfur baths here in Tbilisi. And the president really enjoying himself, dancing, swaying his body and clapping his hands. So I think that the president was surprised that he didn't see the same level of protests and circumspection which he sees on a lot of the trips. He saw a lot of warmth and he saw a lot of pro-American sentiment.

GORDON: Lawrence, as you suggest, we saw thousands upon thousands cheering the president of the United States. Some years ago, obviously we would not have been able to see that picture. I'm curious whether you believe this trip will ultimately help Bush's attempt to spread democracy within Russia. That has been his push to Putin.

SHEETS: I think that the Russians fear that the United States is trying to spread its influence, not just democracy, around the world and in the former Soviet Union. They fear that the United States feels that it's on a roll. They feel that the United States helped inspire some of the so-called revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. To be honest with you, I think the role of the United States in toppling these regimes which fell in Georgia, Ukraine and now Kyrgyzstan is greatly exaggerated. Having said that, the Kremlin does fear that, and the Kremlin still has some allies in these authoritarian, former Soviet republics, like Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, for instance, and the Kremlin sees its authority eroding.

As for how much real practical effect President Bush's trip is going to have, it's hard to say. He did not visit republics which are still run by corrupt authoritarian regimes. He visited republics which are emerging democracies. So it's hard to say how much PR value the president's trip will have. I might turn out to be more rhetoric than anything else. I think that the trip to Georgia was also really to say thanks to Georgia for being a staunch American ally. It's a rarity in this part of the world. Georgia sent 850 troops to Iraq. That's an enormous commitment for a country this size and a country with such deep economic problems.

GORDON: Yeah. All right. NPR's Lawrence Sheets with the latest on the president's visit to Russia and Georgia. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

SHEETS: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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