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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

 

Bush visit shows Georgia's new significance

From Newsday:

Bush's stop is the first visit by a U.S. president to the impoverished country of 4.5 million nestled between Russia and Turkey, a point that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili says proves Georgia's "special role and special mission."

Educated at Columbia University, fluent in English and just 37, Saakashvili is something of a poster boy for what Bush calls the march of freedom. Saakashvili led the nonviolent protests against rigged parliamentary elections in November 2003 that eventually toppled then-president Eduard Shevardnadze, a veteran communist who had lost U.S. support because of his government's corruption.

Wildly popular with his rose-waving supporters, Saakashvili went on to a landslide victory in presidential elections in January 2004. He staffed his cabinet with pro-Western colleagues, nearly all in their 30s, and ordered radical reforms, including a war on corruption, designed to ready Georgia for membership someday in NATO and the European Union.

White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley described the revolution as a "landmark in the history of liberty," a point Bush is likely to stress.

The reality does not always match the ideals, though. Human Rights Watch recently accused Georgia of continuing to practice torture, while Western diplomats worry Saakashvili is concentrating too much power in his own hands.

However, Washington strongly supports its new ally with military and economic assistance. A new aid package worth up to $200 million may be announced shortly, U.S. and Georgian officials indicate.

The country's shift in allegiance has increasingly sidelined Russia, which in one form or other ruled Georgia for most of the last two centuries.

Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have soured to the point that Saakashvili boycotted Monday's World War II victory parade in Red Square, which more than 50 world leaders attended. He said the trip was impossible while Moscow refuses to agree on withdrawal of its last two army bases in Georgia, bases he calls a "legacy of Soviet totalitarian domination."

Meanwhile, it appears Georgia's "rose revolution" was only the beginning.

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