Bush praises Georgians

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TBILISI, Georgia — President Bush yesterday told more than 100,000 cheering Georgians that the former Soviet republic has become a “beacon of freedom,” inspiring the world with its peaceful struggle for democracy.

“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,? the president said in packed Freedom Square.

A day after attending a World War II victory celebration in Moscow’s Red Square, Mr. Bush warned the Kremlin not to meddle in Georgia’s efforts to gain the return of two pro-Russia rebel regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“The territory and sovereignty of Georgia must be respected … by all nations,” the president said as the crowd chanted “Bushi, Bushi” and waved U.S. flags.

“Democracy for our society is a natural attribute, and we will defend it as we do our national identity,” Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said.

Georgia gained its independence after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, but suffered under a pro-Soviet leader for more than 10 years.

In 2003, hundreds of thousands of Georgians descended on Freedom Square and demanded the ouster of former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. The peaceful protest was dubbed the Rose Revolution because then-opposition leader Mr. Saakashvili came into the parliament building carrying a single rose.

“You gathered here, armed with nothing but roses and the power of your convictions, and you claimed your liberty,” Mr. Bush said. “And because you acted, Georgia is today both sovereign and free, and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world.”

Since his election in January 2004, Mr. Saakashvili, 37, has made strides to wipe out the rampant corruption that ruled Georgia long after the Soviet Union broke up.

Mr. Saakashvili praised Mr. Bush as “a leader who has contributed as much to the cause of freedom as any man of our time. … We welcome a freedom fighter.”

Tens of thousands of Georgians jammed into Freedom Square hours before Mr. Bush arrived. The crowd included Georgian folk dancers and two huge bleacher sections were packed with hundreds of people. One section, with people dressed in red, white and blue, formed the U.S. flag, with another group forming the red and white Georgian flag.

The throng, which spilled out of the square onto side streets, remained patient even when the sound system shut down during Mr. Saakashvili’s impassioned speech.

But the malfunctioning sound system led to the day’s most powerful moment. When a recording of Georgia’s national anthem failed to play properly, Mr. Saakashvili motioned to choirs in the crowd. The singers were joined by thousands in the crowd, who spontaneously belted out the anthem a cappella.

Earlier in the day, the two leaders held a joint press conference, during which Mr. Bush ducked a question about the Georgian dispute with the Kremlin over Soviet-era bases on its soil, which Mr. Saakashvili has likened to an occupation.

Mr. Bush said he had discussed the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who responded that his government was working to fulfill its obligations under an earlier deal to eventually close the bases.

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