- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 24, 2005

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — President Bush was welcomed like a rock star yesterday, drawing cheers from thousands of Slovaks who braved freezing temperatures and snow squalls to hear the U.S. president extol the values of democracy.

Mr. Bush delivered an open-air speech at a town square fondly remembered as the scene of protests that led to the collapse of communism 15 years ago.

When he said, “The American people are proud to call you allies and friends and brothers in the cause of freedom,” the crowd exploded in applause.

Mr. Bush also paid homage to the difficulties of building a strong democratic state from the ashes of totalitarianism.

“As you work to build a free and democratic Slovakia in the heart of Europe, America stands with you,” he said.

When the speech ended, Mr. Bush took his first plunge into the crowd during his five-day trip to Europe, and was swamped by enthusiastic Slovaks.

The contrast with Germany, where Mr. Bush’s visit drew thousands of protesters, could not have been greater.

“He’s the head of the world’s superpower. In my opinion, it is good for Slovakia to be friends with such a big and strong country,” said Stefan Ilavsky, 45, a clerk who took a six-hour train trip from eastern Slovakia to be at the event.

“We were pleased that he and America realized the importance of our Velvet Revolution,” said a student named Petra, referring to Mr. Bush’s praise for pro-democracy demonstrations that ended communist rule in what was then Czechoslovakia.

A handful of protesters at the back of the square held up banners against the Iraq war, and Greenpeace environmental activists also demonstrated nearby.

Mr. Bush’s visit was the first by a U.S. president since Slovakia shook off communism in 1989 and gained independence after Czechoslovakia split in 1993.

“The meeting in the square was fantastic,” Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan told The Washington Times afterward.

The loudest applause came when Mr. Bush announced that visa requirements would be liberalized for Slovaks who wish to visit the United States.

“By ‘liberalizing,’ he meant that the red tape, that the bureaucracy will be cut down — that the process will proceed more quickly,” Mr. Kukan explained.

Slovakia has sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, breaking ranks with other American allies, such as France and Germany, who opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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