Bush brings words of support for Georgia
US President Bush brought ringing words of support Tuesday for Georgia's democracy and its aspirations to join NATO, but no firm promises of assistance to help Georgia wrench itself from Russia's influence.
In an incident that could have marred Bush's visit, the Secret Service was investigating a report that a hand grenade was thrown at the stage while the president spoke in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The device did not explode and was removed by a Georgian security officer, the report said.
But Bush stopped short of offering concrete help in getting Russia to withdraw two military bases and said the United States cannot impose a solution on the separatist issue. He also hinted at the difficult tasks ahead, warning his Georgian hosts that "building a free society is the work of generations."
Georgia — sliced apart by separatists, deeply impoverished and increasingly becoming an irritant toward its giant neighbor Russia — had huge expectations ahead of Bush's visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president to a young democracy still very much struggling.
The big winner from the U.S. visit is likely to be Saakashvili, the 36-year-old pro-Western president who beamed whenever he stood by Bush's side.
Saakashvili won the presidency in a landslide in January 2004 after leading the Rose Revolution protests that toppled the corruption-tainted rule of Eduard Shevardnadze, a one-time hero to the West for his restraint as the Soviet Union's foreign minister.
Some Georgians joked darkly that Shevardnadze played off those laurels for years even as his country sunk deeper into chaos, adding that they hoped Saakashvili won't do the same with Bush's historic visit.
Lawmaker David Gamkrelidze, the only opposition figure to meet Bush, said he warned the American president that like the newly painted facades of buildings in the capital, Georgia's democracy is still superficial.
He said he cited the lack of an independent legal system and a weakened parliament, telling Bush that Saakashvili's decision to concentrate power in the hands of the president and his Cabinet is moving Georgia away from the U.S.-endorsed principle of "mutual control and mutual balance."
"There is a danger of serious problems ahead," Gamkrelidze said.
But Saakashvili remains popular, and many still put their hopes on him and his enthusiasm and energy. Georgians also admire his refusal to be intimidated by Moscow, which has given loose support to the two separatist governments.
Without mentioning Russia by name, Bush declared the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected ... by all nations."
Saying he was confident Saakashvili had a strategy in place, Bush added: "The United States cannot impose a solution nor would you want us to."
But he added, "Obviously if the president were to call and want me to make a phone call or two, I'd be more than happy to do so."
Bush offered support for Georgia's long-term bid to join NATO and other Western institutions, saying: "You've got a solid friend in America."
"America is the sort of friend that Georgia needs," said Salome Karumidze, 14, as she danced with friends in Freedom Square.