President of Georgia Gets Warm Embrace

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 6, 2006

President Bush hosted the leader of the former Soviet republic of Georgia at the White House yesterday and embraced him as "my friend," delivering a pointed message just a week before a summit in Russia that he will stand by its neighbors in the face of pressure from Moscow.

Appearing before cameras in the Oval Office, Bush praised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for "vigor and enthusiasm" and called him "a man who shares the same values I share." He vowed to help Georgia join NATO despite Russian objections and asserted that the small, rugged country in the Caucasus Mountains holds a high place on his priority list.

"I assured the president that Georgia is our friend and we care deeply about the people of Georgia," the president said as Saakashvili beamed. At the end of the brief question-and-answer session, Bush added: "My friend, the president, wouldn't be sitting here if I didn't have Georgia on my mind."

The pun aside, Bush's comments had a serious, if unspoken meaning. Located on Russia's southern rim along a vital oil pipeline corridor, Georgia has been at a flash point between Washington and Moscow for years. By showcasing his meeting with Saakashvili, officials and analysts said, Bush signaled he is concerned about Kremlin treatment of former satellites as he prepares to head to St. Petersburg for the first Group of Eight summit hosted by Russia.

"It's a way to indicate that our friends in the region that we share interests with are not going to be forgotten," said Cory Welt, head of the Caucasus Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The event may further irritate Russia, which has bristled at U.S. criticism over its authoritarian direction. Russia considers Georgia, which was part of its empire for nearly two centuries until the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, as being still within its sphere of influence and resents interference by Washington. Russians particularly dislike Saakashvili, the most pro-Western leader in the region. "Anytime he comes here, the Russians take note," a U.S. official said.

Saakashvili led the nonviolent, democratic Rose Revolution in 2003 that toppled an entrenched, corrupt government and helped trigger two more "color revolutions" in Russia's periphery that made the Kremlin nervous. Since then, he has aligned himself unabashedly with Bush, welcoming him to Tbilisi last year with a rally of hundreds of thousands of people.

Saakashvili also sent 900 troops to Iraq, an especially large number for a nation of 4.7 million and a contribution surpassed among U.S. allies only by the much larger countries of Britain, South Korea and Italy. Yesterday, he also offered words of support that Bush rarely hears from foreign leaders.

"One thing I can tell, Mr. President: Your freedom agenda does, indeed, work," Saakashvili said. "I mean, you can see it in Georgia. We are seeing it in Iraq. And please stay there, please fight there until the end. We will stay with you there, whatever it takes, because your success in Iraq is success for countries like Georgia."

Bush returned the favor, endorsing eventual NATO membership for Georgia. "I believe that NATO would benefit with Georgia being a member of NATO, and I think Georgia would benefit," he said, adding: "We'll work with our partners in NATO to see if we can't make the path a little smoother for Georgia."

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