TBILISI, Georgia – U.S. President George W. Bush (search) arrived in the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia on Monday on a visit that Georgians hope will notch up the pressure on Russia to respect this young democracy on its doorstep.
Georgians want Russia to withdraw two Soviet-era holdover bases it maintains on Georgian territory and to stop giving support to two separatist regions — issues that the U.S.-educated president, Mikhail Saakashvili (search), is looking to the United States to promote.
Saakashvili and his Dutch-born wife, Sandra Roelofs, greeted Bush and first lady Laura Bush at the airport, where Georgian and U.S. flags fluttered under a gray sky. Saakashvili's wife gave the first lady a bouquet of flowers while a Georgian honor guard stood at attention.
The presidents and their wives then departed for a tour of Georgia's historic old town, a neighborhood of rickety balconies, crooked streets and colorful bath houses.
Georgians have been frantically preparing for the visit, erecting giant welcoming billboards along the highway and coating ramshackle buildings with fresh paint. Georgian dancers and singers in traditional costumes performed for the president.
"When the leader of today's free world turns his attention to you, you should be proud," said Katya Chichua, 50, as she surveyed workers laying colorful Oriental rugs on a stage in the old town.
The White House has said the trip, coming directly after Bush's visit to Moscow, is a chance to praise the rising pro-democracy sentiment in the former Soviet sphere — a movement that Georgians proudly claim to have started with their peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution (search) that brought the pro-Western Saakashvili to power.
"Now we have the privilege and honor to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S., sharing the gifts of liberty and democracy with our neighbors," Saakashvili said in a welcome letter.
Georgia has declared its hope to someday join NATO and the European Union — two goals that are still far off for this nation of 5 million, which remains wracked by separatism and whose people are still burdened by deep poverty.
Georgia has an uneasy relationship with its giant neighbor and main energy supplier, Russia, and Bush's visit is getting a near-universal welcome.
Many see the United States as the kind of powerful friend that Georgia needs as it maneuvers out of Moscow's orbit. Saakashvili refused Russia's invitation to attend Monday's Victory in Europe Day celebrations in Moscow to protest Russia's reluctance to withdraw its two military bases. The Georgians have said the Russian troops are no longer welcome and are pushing for a quick pullout.
"It is because of Bush's visit that Saakashvili was able to do the right thing," said Shato Baliashvili, 81, whose chest shone with medals he earned for spending three years on the front lines in World War II with the Red Army.
In an interview with Georgia's Rustavi 2 television that aired Sunday night, Bush said that Washington was ready to provide help over the bases but emphasized that dialogue between Moscow and Tbilisi would bring the best results. Bush noted the support Russia gave Georgia in its efforts to restore order to the Pankisi Gorge, an area that borders Chechnya, as a welcome sign of cooperation.