- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2005

TBILISI, Georgia — From Red Square to Freedom Square in a day.

President Bush began yesterday soaking in Soviet glory as he attended a Red Square parade with goose-stepping soldiers to commemorate the end of World War II, before flying to Georgia, a former Soviet republic, where he will deliver a speech today in Freedom Square.

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said last night that Mr. Bush “promised me he will make a very strong speech. That is what he promised me.”

“The subject will be democracy in Georgia after the Rose Revolution and democracy elsewhere in the ex-Soviet Union,” Mr. Saakashvili, 37, said.

Mr. Bush was clearly excited to leave Russia for Georgia. At a welcoming celebration in Tbilisi, he and first lady Laura Bush lingered an hour past his scheduled departure and had an impromptu dinner with Mr. Saakashvili and his wife. Mr. Bush even joined Georgian dancers on stage, swiveling his hips briefly in time to a folk song.

Freedom Square, once named for the Soviet dictator Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, was renamed after 1989, when 19 protesters were killed and hundreds injured by Soviet troops suppressing a pro-independence demonstration. The square served as the rallying ground for hundreds of thousands of people who mounted the 2003 Rose Revolution, which swept Eduard Shevardnadze out of power and installed Mr. Saakashvili.

Mr. Bush’s visit to Georgia, the first by a U.S. president, comes 16 months after the Columbia University-educated Mr. Saakashvili became president, promising to lead his country away from centuries of domination by Russia.

Since taking power, Mr. Saakashvili has sought to sweep out corruption left over from the Shevardnadze era and move Georgia toward the West. His split with Russia came into focus this week when he declined an invitation to Moscow to attend the Red Square parade to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.

The visit today will push Georgia closer to the United States, which, judging by the turnout of Georgians to watch Mr. Bush’s motorcade pass, will not be a hard task. Thousands lined the road from the airport to cheer and wave U.S. flags. One held a sign that read: “George Bush Is a Georgian.”

The Kremlin sees Mr. Bush’s visit as divisive and accuses him of interfering in a part of the world that Russia considers its back yard.

Mr. Bush caused consternation among some Russian officials by preceding the Moscow ceremonies with meetings with the leaders of the Baltic states, who are demanding an apology for Soviet annexation after World War II.

Georgians want Russia to withdraw two Soviet-era military bases it maintains on their territory and to end support for two separatist regions, aims that Mr. Saakashvili hopes Mr. Bush will openly endorse during his visit.

Mr. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin put aside their differences yesterday and sat side by side in Red Square for the parade commemorating victory in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

Mr. Bush, the first U.S. president to attend such an event, sat somberly on a stage in front of Lenin’s tomb as thousands of soldiers passed in an elaborate procession.

Overhead, fighters roared by, streaming smoke in the white, blue and red colors of Russia’s flag. But unlike the 1995 celebration — which President Clinton, in Moscow at the time, boycotted in protest of the Russian military campaign in Chechnya — there were no tanks or missiles paraded.

More than 50 foreign leaders attended the event yesterday, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — nations that were both U.S. foes in World War II.

The Russian president addressed thousands in an invitation-only crowd in Red Square, saying his country never would forget the debt owed to the tens of millions of Soviet citizens who died to defeat Nazism. “I bow low before all veterans of the Great Patriotic War,” Mr. Putin said, describing May 9, 1945, celebrated in Russia as Victory Day, as “a day of victory of good over evil, freedom over tyranny.”

The parade began with four goose-stepping soldiers carrying a replica of the banner of the Red Army’s 150th Rifle Division, which was flown from the Reichstag in May 1945 after Soviet troops captured the German capital, Berlin.

Senior Bush adviser Dan Bartlett said the event yesterday “demonstrates how far we’ve come in the world and in Europe in particular, that we can come together as nations and recognize the past but also look to the future.”

But the Moscow celebration caused friction across Eastern Europe when Mr. Putin portrayed the Red Army as liberators, despite decades of Soviet postwar occupation. The leaders of two former Soviet republics, Estonia and Lithuania, rejected Mr. Putin’s invitation, but the president of Latvia, Mr. Bush’s first stop on the five-day trip, decided to attend.

Baltic leaders had demanded that Russia apologize for the postwar occupation, which Mr. Putin refused to do. Mr. Bush added to the friction when he said during his visit to the Latvian capital, Riga, that the occupations were “one of the greatest wrongs in history.”

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