Given the recent flare-up in Georgian-Russian tension, spurred by the collapse of talks on the withdrawal of Russian troops stationed in Georgia, many media outlets in Tbilisi expected that issue to dominate Saakashvili's discussions with Bush. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. But Russia was barely mentioned during public comments made by both Bush and Saakashvili. Instead, the dominant topic during Bush's two-day visit, the first by a sitting US president to the South Caucasus, was the need for the peaceful resolution of conflicts involving Georgia's separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Saakashvili reiterated his administration's commitment to achieving Georgian reunification through negotiations. "We will peacefully resolve the dispute with our South Ossetian and Abkhazian neighbors," Saakashvili said during the news conference. "We know we can count on US support in these endeavors."
Bush endorsed Saakashvili's position, while appearing to caution Russia against meddling in the process. "The territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia must be respected by all nations," Bush told reporters.
The Saakashvili administration has offered broad autonomy to Abkhazia and South Ossetia in return for accepting Tbilisi's overall authority. Bush characterized Saakashvili's offer as "a very good strategy," and indicated that the United States was interested in brokering a settlement. "The United States can't impose a solution," Bush said. "Nor would you [Georgians] want us to." Nonetheless, the US president said that he would be "happy to make a few phone calls" if Saakashvili requested that he do so.
Bush's comments underscored what seems to be an intensification of US efforts to break the stalemate surrounding the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. In April, US Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles, along with Washington's Caspian Basin energy trouble-shooter, Steven Mann, traveled to the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi. There, they held talks with the region's political leaders on potential openings for compromise with Tbilisi.
In remarks published May 10 by Interfax, the Russian news agency, Bagapsh showed no sign of backing away from the regional government's demand for outright independence. "We respect the opinion of the US president, who welcomed the initiative of the Georgian side to grant autonomy to Abkhazia and South Ossetia," Interfax quoted Bagapsh as saying. "But I would like to remind you that the Abkhaz people have already made its choice at the referendum in favor of independence and this choice should be respected."
Bush indicated that resolving Abkhazia and South Ossetia conflicts was "essential" if Georgia was to succeed in strengthening its ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Saakashvili has made NATO membership for Georgia one of his main foreign policy priorities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. During their formal talks, Bush and Saakashvili discussed Georgia's NATO membership aspirations. Bush also thanked Saakashvili for the deployment of roughly 800 Georgian soldiers in Iraq as part of the US-led international coalition. Georgia has also dispatched a smaller troop contingent to Afghanistan.
The theme for Bush's visit to Georgia was "Celebrating Freedom and Democracy." In public addresses given at Tbilisi's Freedom Square, both presidents stressed that shared values -- rather than, according to Saakashvili, "an oil pipeline . . . or any kind of military cooperation" -- are driving the US-Georgian partnership.
The tens of thousands of Georgians who gathered at Freedom Square heard Bush hail the November 2003 Rose Revolution as a harbinger of change throughout the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. "Your most important contribution is your example," Bush said. "[B]efore there was a Purple Revolution in Iraq or Orange Revolution in Ukraine or a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, there was a Rose Revolution in Georgia."
Saakashvili has faced domestic criticism in recent months over his administration's record on several issues, including the abuse of detainees by police and press freedom. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, opposition politicians complain that Saakashvili's governing style is autocratic. Neither Bush nor Saakashvili made any public reference to such perceived shortcomings.
Bush met with one opposition politician, New Conservative Party leader David Gamkrelidze, who was part of a delegation of MPs that participated in a meeting between the US president and Parliament Speaker Nino Burjanadze. In remarks to reporters, Gamkrelidze said that Bush emphasized the need for rule of law and an independent judiciary in Georgia. A meeting was also held between the US president and representatives of Georgia's ethnic minorities.
Opposition supporters appeared to stay away from public events during Bush's visit, in particular the speech at Freedom Square. A planned demonstration by the Labor Party attracted only a handful of participants, who carried signs in English that denounced the "Saakashvili dictatorship." A few opposition supporters in the Freedom Square crowd waved placards in English that called for "pre-term elections."
In public, Bush offered praise for the Saakashvili administration. While "reminding" Georgia of the importance of respect for ethnic minority rights, Bush described Georgia under Saakashvili as a country where "a free press flourishes, a vigorous opposition is welcomed."
"The path of freedom you chose is not easy, but you will not travel it alone," Bush said in his Freedom Square speech.
Georgian praise for Bush ran equally strong. "We welcome you as a freedom fighter," said Saakashvili. The Georgian leader also named Bush as the first recipient of the Order of St. George, an award created "for promotion of freedom in the world."
Attempting a few words in Georgian, and a few shimmying dance steps at the conclusion of a May 9 performance of traditional Georgian dances, Bush appeared to make a favorable impression on Georgians. The message on one poster succinctly summarized the hopes of many Georgians: "Mr. Georg[e] W. Bush can save Georgia."
Elizabeth Owen is EurasiaNet.orgs Caucasus news coordinator in Tbilisi.