Bush cheered in Tbilisi as he urges Russian restraint

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The Independent Online

President George Bush wound up his highly charged trip to countries of the former Soviet Union by hailing Georgia's "rose revolution" and praising the country as "a beacon of liberty for the region and the world".

President George Bush wound up his highly charged trip to countries of the former Soviet Union by hailing Georgia's "rose revolution" and praising the country as "a beacon of liberty for the region and the world".

Addressing a 100,000-strong crowd in Freedom Square in Tbilisi yesterday, Mr Bush said the November 2003 uprising that toppled the country's former leader Eduard Shevardnadze had been an example for Ukraine, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries that were seeking democracy.

And taking clear aim at Moscow - where just a day earlier he had attended the 60th anniversary celebrations of the end of the Second World War - the US President declared that "the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected ... by all nations."

The cheers that greeted his words summed up a visit that Mr Bush, so often a reluctant traveller, visibly enjoyed. They were also a fitting endpiece to a five-day, four-country tour that went better than perhaps even the White House expected.

From his arrival in Latvia last Friday to his final stop in Georgia, the visit was overshadowed by the Second World War and its contentious aftermath, and by Russia's still awkward relationship with an increasingly united Europe.

Yet Mr Bush appears to have deftly walked the diplomatic tightrope. Never did he miss a chance to extol his central foreign policy goal of advancing freedom and democracy. At the same time, however, he used his good personal relations with President Vladimir Putin to avoid unduly upsetting a Russia acutely sensitive of its diminished global status.

He did not mention Russia's brutal war in Chechnya. And although he publicly criticised the Soviet Union's post-war occupation of eastern Europe and the three Baltic states (two of whose leaders boycotted the Moscow ceremonies), he pointedly told the trio not to discriminate against the ethnic Russian minorities on their soil.

In Georgia yesterday, he carefully stopped short of telling Moscow to close its military bases in the country - a dispute which prompted the Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, to stay away from the anniversary celebrations.

Mr Bush also made clear that the US would not step directly into the disputes over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He seemed to embrace Mr Saakashvili's plan to grant autonomy, but not full independence. "The United States cannot impose a solution, nor would you want us to," he said, adding that he would work with the United Nations and other international bodies.

But deep underlying tensions with Russia remain. Moscow has been stung by demands that it should apologise for its post-war subjection of eastern Europe and the occupation of the Baltic states, and was plainly irritated by the visits by Mr Bush to two countries historically in its orbit.

Some Russian officials suggested he was trying to undermine Russia's influence - likening his itinerary to a trip to the US by Mr Putin, preceded by a stop-over in North Korea and followed by a visit to Cuba.

Mr Putin let his anger be known yesterday at a summit of Russian and European Union leaders, describing a border claim by Latvia, an EU member, as "total nonsense".

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