Bush calls Georgia a beacon of liberty

US President George Bush has hailed Georgia as a beacon of liberty and, in a swipe at Moscow, said the sovereignty of the ex-Soviet republic must be respected.

    Bush said Washington backed Georgia's cooperation with Nato

    Tens of thousands of people jammed

    into

    Tbilisi's Freedom

    Square

    on Tuesday to cheer Bush at the

    rallying point for a 2003 Rose

    Revolution that

    brought pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili to

    power.
     

    Bush threw his weight behind Georgia's efforts to

    gain the

    return of two pro-Moscow rebel

    regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which

    Saakashvili says is vital for his country to recover from years of

    economic

    decline.

    But Bush

    significantly avoided open backing for Saakashvili

    in his demand for the speedy closure of two Russian bases on Georgian

    soil.

    Aware

    that

    Georgia's fledging democracy feels intimidated by

    neighbouring

    Moscow, Bush

    said

    Washington

    encouraged

    Georgia's closer cooperation with

    Nato.


    And

    he got some of his loudest cheers when he said: "The

    sovereignty and territorial

    integrity of

    Georgia

    must be respected ... by all

    nations."
     

    Cheering crowds

     

    The

    US-educated Saakashvili asked for

    Washington's help in joining the list of

    other

    ex-Soviet states to join Nato,

    saying: "Democracy for our society is a natural

    attribute and we will defend it as we do our national identity."

     

    "

    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"

    US President George Bush

    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. Estimates of their numbers ranged from at

    least 60,000 to well

    over 100,000.


    As the two leaders appeared on the makeshift stage, the

    crowd chanted "Misha, Misha!" - the short form of Saakashvili's first name - and

    then "Bushi, Bushi!"

    the Georgian language version of the

    US

    president's

    name.

     

    Grenade

     

    A hand grenade was discovered near Bush during his joint appearance with the Georgian leader at a rally in Tbilisi, but was not in a position to explode, a top Georgian security official said on Wednesday.

     

    "The grenade was not in the armed position," he said, and "there was no threat to the presidents. The aim was to scare people to get media attention," said Gela Bezhuashvili, secretary of Georgia's national security council.

     

    Struggle

     

    Bush

    recalled

    Georgia's long struggle for

    independence that led

    to the People Power revolution of November 2003.
     
    "

    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," he said.


    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.

     

    Regional conflicts

    Bush

    told Saakashvili that he could telephone him any time to

    seek help on the

    disputes over the rebel regions, but

    suggested international bodies such as the

    United Nations also be brought in to solve 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," he said.


    "Democracy for our society is a natural

    attribute and we will defend it as we do our national identity"

    Mikhail Saakashvili,
    Georgian president

    Bush

    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," he added. 
       

    In reply to a question, Bush avoided support

    for

    Georgia

    in its dispute with the

    Kremlin over the Soviet-era 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

    responded that his

    government was working to fulfill its obligations under an

    earlier agreement to eventually close the bases. 
       
    "T

    hat

    is an important commitment for the people of

    Georgia

    to hear," Bush said in

    remarks likely to disappoint Saakashvili.


    The Georgian leader

    snubbed

    Moscow'

    s lavish

    second world war anniversary party on Monday - which Bush

    attended - in protest against

    Russia's failure to agree on

    withdrawal of its bases, which

    house about 3000 troops.

     

    Total nonsense

     

    Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir

    Putin, stung by suggestions his nation should apologise

    for the Soviet Union's

    occupation of the

    Baltic states, has called a border claim by

    EU-member

    Latvia "total nonsense".

     

    Russia has yet to sign a border-delineation

    agreement with Baltic neighbours Latvia and Estonia, a

    move that has been

    repeatedly delayed by poor relations

    between Moscow and the Baltics - former

    Soviet republics.

     

    Putin has dismissed the Baltic
    states' demand for an apology

    "We are ready to sign the agreement on border... with Estonia and Latvia," Putin

    said on Tuesday. "We hope they will not be accompanied by

    idiotic - in terms of their content - demands of a territorial

    nature."

     

    "We are ready to wait

    while our colleagues who came up with this sort of

    fantasy become mature for real work and will be really ready to sign

    these

    documents," he said, adding that

    Russia had no border dispute with Estonia .
      

    Estonia

    and

    Lithuania

    both boycotted Monday's second world war celebrations in protest at

    Russia's insistence that the

    Soviet Union acted as a

    liberator rather than

    occupier in the

    Baltic states

    after the

    war.


    The border dispute

    with

    Latvia

    hinges on a 1920

    treaty between Soviet Russia

    and

    Latvia. In the pact, the Russians

    renounced claims on Latvian territory, which at the time included the Abrene district, annexed

    by

    Moscow in 1945. 

    SOURCE: Agencies


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