Thursday, May 12, 2005

TBILISI, Georgia — President Bush’s vision of spreading freedom and democracy throughout the world has found a home in the heart of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili.

The 37-year-old, U.S.-educated freedom fighter who led a popular uprising in 2003 dubbed the “Rose Revolution,” which ousted a former top Soviet official from power told The Washington Times yesterday that the U.S. president is on the right side of history.

“It’s a new kind of ideology that we have from this president that’s kind of crystallized now. It is idealistic. It’s a much more moral position. It’s also a very winning positive position,” Mr. Saakashvili said.

“I think President Bush was very fast to capture this mood,” he added.

The two leaders stood shoulder to shoulder this week in Freedom Square, once called Lenin Square, and spoke in soaring rhetoric about the prospect of freedom and democracy to transform the world.

The boyish leader of this nation of 4.4 million people sees the sweep of peaceful uprisings in the Middle East and former Soviet Union in the past 18 months as proof that the desire for freedom is universal.

Everybody, he said, was cynical about Bush’s speech at his second inaugural, which laid out his vision to spread democracy.

“But look at what’s happening in Lebanon, what’s happening in Egypt, what happened with [election] turnout in Iraq. After all, this vision works, against all the odds, against all the skeptics, against all the cynical remarks. Appeasement and trying to please dictators, in the long run, it’s very stupid policy.”

The sudden movement toward democracy does not surprise Mr. Saakashvili.

“In the era of television, the message spreads very fast and things start to look very similar,” he said.

Although some European nations withheld support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Georgia is proud to have 800 troops serving there. Mr. Saakashvili said that even though the United States has been supportive of Georgia’s democratic movement from the beginning, “this is not to pay back anything.”

“We believe that we are part of the same solidarity. Georgians want to feel important, Georgians want to be a part of something bigger.”

Mr. Saakashvili, who sat on a couch in his office well past 9 p.m., wearing a pink shirt and pink tie, said Georgia does not want any special treatment from the United States. He also said that during Mr. Bush’s overnight stay, he did not ask for help dealing with Russia’s remaining military bases in Georgia, which house more than 3,000 troops, or two pro-Russia rebel regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

“We didn’t ask President Bush for cash here or for some special statement, even on the Russian bases. No. What we asked for was not to be abandoned. That’s what matters,” he said.

Still, Mr. Saakashvili said that Georgia must deal with Russia, but that those interactions are made complex “because Russia has a complex relationship with perceptions of its own self.”

But he said Russian President Vladimir Putin is a “very pragmatic person,” adding that “Russia is not North Korea. Russia wants to be liked. Russia wants to be part of the world.”

Although Mr. Bush made only one indirect reference to Russia during his stop here — saying, “The territory and sovereignty of Georgia must be respected … by all nations” — Mr. Saakashvili said, “The very fact of him being here is a strong enough message to everybody in this region.”

Still, said Mr. Saakashvili, who attended George Washington University and Columbia Law School before returning to his native country, Russia is changing. “They are watching. … If it can work in Georgia, it can work in Russia as well.”

He also thinks that Mr. Bush is handling Russia correctly.

“I don’t think that America should be unfriendly to the Russians, but it should be friendship based on principles. If anything works with the Russians, this kind of relationship works.”

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