TBILISI, Georgia – Cheered by tens of thousands in a former Soviet republic, President Bush (search) urged the spread of democracy Tuesday across the former communist world and beyond, declaring that oppressed people "are demanding their freedom and they shall have it."
Bush said that Georgia, where the peaceful Rose Revolution (search) in 2003 sparked a domino effect of governmental change in the region, was inspiring democratic reformers around the world. "Freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth," he said.
The president's words were likely to irritate Moscow (search), which already complains the United States is meddling in Russia's backyard. Russia had objected to Bush's stop here and in Latvia, another former Soviet republic. The two countries boycotted Monday's V-E celebration over disputes with Moscow.
Bush expressed sympathy for Georgia's refusal to grant independence to two separatist regions aligned with Moscow. "The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected," he said.
On a warm, spring day, Bush received a tumultuous welcome in Freedom Square (search), where Soviet forces violently broke up large protests in 1989. It's also where demonstrators gathered in 1991 as the Soviet Union fell and again in 2003 for protests that ousted then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, after fraud-infested elections.
Bush noted that the square once was known as Lenin Square, and he said admiringly that 16 years earlier, "under Lenin's steely gaze, thousands of Georgians prayed and sang and demanded their independence."
Estimates of the crowd in the square and surrounding streets varied wildly, from fewer than 100,000 to more than 300,000. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said it was the largest gathering ever in the country, and it was one of the largest Bush ever has addressed.
"We welcome you as a freedom fighter," Saakashvili told Bush, the first U.S. president to visit Georgia.
Nino Gabriashvili, a mother of four daughters, said she was inspired by Bush's speech, particularly his call for all nations to respect Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty. "That means something coming from the American president — the Russians will have to listen," she said.
Konstantin Barbigadze, 44, brought his parents, his in-laws, his wife and four children to watch. "I can't tell you how important this is for Georgians," said Barbigadze, who waved small Georgian and American flags.
It was Bush's last stop on a four-country trip, and he delighted Georgians with his hip-wiggling, head-nodding reaction to native dancers after his arrival from Moscow. "The cultural dancing and singing was spectacular," he said at a news conference with Saakashvili.
Bush also expressed support for Georgia's aspirations to join NATO, a move that would bring Western security guarantees. "You've got a solid friend in America," the president said.
His unvarnished promotion of democracy marked a sharp turn from the image Monday in Moscow, where Bush sat on a reviewing stand in Red Square watching goose-stepping soldiers and flags emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle that recalled the days of communist rule.
Bush said the world was marveling at hopeful changes from Iraq to Lebanon to Kyrgyzstan. "But before there was a Purple Revolution in Iraq or an Orange Revolution in Ukraine or a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, there was the Rose Revolution in Georgia," he declared.
"Now across the Caucasus, in central Asia and the broader Middle East we see this same desire of liberty burning in the hearts of young people," Bush said. "They are demanding their freedom and they will have it."
Bush and Saakashvili talked with about a dozen representatives of Georgia's many ethnic populations, an event aimed at bolstering Bush's argument that strong democracies must respect minority groups in their midst.
"Our diversity is our strength," said Saakashvili, who is trying to keep the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from splitting away. Bush spoke approvingly of Saakashvili's proposal to grant autonomy and self-government but to keep the two regions as part of Georgia.
Bush said he had talked with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Georgia's demand for the closure of two Russian bases here.
"He (Putin) reminded me that there is an agreement in place — a 1999 agreement," Bush said. "He said that the Russians want to work with the government to fulfill their obligations in terms of that agreement. I think that's a commitment that's important for the people of Georgia to hear. It shows there's grounds to work to get this issue resolved."
Georgia still has plenty of problems.
Corruption is widespread. So is poverty. Basic utilities including gas and electricity are unreliable. Russia, for all the positive talk, remains a threat.
Lawmaker David Gamkrelidze, the only opposition figure to meet with the visiting president, said he told Bush that Georgia's democracy was still superficial — like the newly painted facades of buildings in the capital,
Lack of an independent legal system and a strong parliament are problems, and concentration of power in the hands of Saakashvili and his Cabinet is moving Georgia away from the U.S.-endorsed idea of "mutual control and mutual balance," he said he told Bush.