The last stop of a five-day, four-country trip that also included visits to Russia, Latvia and the Netherlands, Georgia provided the most lively illustration of the main narrative of Bush's trip: tying the democratic movements in the former Soviet republics to his vision for democracy in the Middle East and around the world.
Tens of thousands of Georgians waited in hot sun for hours to hear Bush address them in Freedom Square, where in November 2003 the "Rose Revolution" transformed the country into a democracy. Bush hopes that in 10 or 15 years he may be the white-haired dignitary who stands on a similar stage, on an equally cloudless day, in Baghdad. There his successor will tell the story of the day when Saddam's statue, fell marking the start of that country's purple revolution.
"You are making many important contributions to freedom's cause, but your most important contribution is your example," said Bush, standing beneath two bleachers filled with singers dressed in red, white and blue and arrayed to approximate the flags of both Georgia and the United States. "Your courage is inspiring democratic reformers and sending a message that echoes across the world: Freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth."
When the loudspeakers failed during the Georgian national anthem, the crowd joined to finish the song in unison a reminder of the square's history for spontaneous democratic action. The Bush team took clear pleasure in the President's glowing reception. They had spent the first three days of the trip fussing with America's more complex relationship with Russia. Before the President's arrival in Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that the President's visits to Latvia and Georgia unnecessarily interfered in Moscow's historic zone of influence. Bush didn't appear to change his script to answer the complaints. Throughout the trip, he tried to balance his enthusiasm for the freedoms and sovereignty of the former Soviet republics with respect for Russia. He praised the Latvians for resisting the Russians, for example, but also called on the country to respect its sizeable Russian majority. In Georgia, he angered the Russians by supporting Georgia's plan for reintegrating the breakaway pro-Russian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Then he acknowledged Russia's concernsand perhaps mollified themin warning the Georgians to respect the rights of its minority populations in those regions.
The administration is wary of Putin and his commitment to Democratic reform. A senior member of Bush's foreign policy team said: "You never know with Putin, it's one step forward and then two steps back." Goose-stepping soldiers, a hammer-and-sickle flag and other symbols of the communist era during the victory parade suggested their nervousness was genuine.
By the end of the Moscow visit, both sides were working hard to show how well everyone was getting along. Rice and Lavrov held a joint press conference to put that letter writing business behind them. The two presidents embraced and smiled broadly as they greeted each other at the Russian presidential residence, then took a joy ride in Putin's Volga, a vintage 1956 Soviet automobile.
In the end, U.S. officials argue, Bush and Putin's serious disagreements over trade and the pace of democratic reforms exist in the context of an adult relationship that transcends momentary spats. And they need each other. Putin needs Bush to help Russia get into the World Trade Organization and to support his efforts to contain Muslim radicals. Bush often praises Putin for his support in the war on terrorism and more specifically for his help containing Iran and North Korea.
Bush wasn't the only one well treated in Georgia. The country is known for its hospitality. As President Mikheil Saakashvili put it during his press conference with President Bush, "Georgians have a belief that guests are a gift from God." I learned this first hand. I was the only Western journalist staying at the Baumond, a small bed and breakfast fifteen minutes from Freedom Square. As everyone else was slipping in to the high threadcount sheets at the sleek and thoroughly modern Courtyard Marriot, I was being shown in to what looked like aunt Edna's room. A bed, a desk and armoire fit snugly into the space. I was happy I was only staying there for a few hours. "Probably not a lot of wi-fi here," I joked to myself looking at the wash-pail-sized tub (sans shower curtain).
Before I turned in, I made a quick visit downstairs for refreshment. I returned two hours, and many digital pictures, later. The proprietor, Soso Giorgadze, opened his kitchen to me. I sat with him, his wife, his sister-in-law and a security guard hired to protect the special guest for the night. We exchanged toasts and good wishes for our countries, our children and grandchildren. We made up in hand gestures what we couldn't with language. Plates of cheese, bread and sliced meats came at regular intervals, as did the 35-year-old brandy. (A vintage that so captivated me, I felt moved to document it with my camera.) A former Russian army captain from Moscow joined us after a time for a round of "cha-cha," as Georgian vodka is known. At 130 proof, the homemade brew clears the sinuses. (I have a picture of this bottle as well.) We talked about oil prices, the 27 million Russians that died in the Second World War and the dual tragedies of the 9/11 attacks and the massacre of school children in Beslan. They were all big Bush fans.
With only a couple of hours left before I was scheduled to join the official White House Pres corps again, I retired to type a few notes before settling into the gently listing bed. When my host heard that I was going to work he barked out in his broken English: "Oh, and we have wi-fi."