US President George W. Bush's visit to Tbilisi has provided a boost for President Mikheil Saakashvili's reformist government. Saakashvili characterized the visit as a "great political victory" for Georgia, while citizens expressed enthusiasm for Bush's comments on Georgia's democratization process.
During his two-day stay in Tbilisi on May 9-10, the US president praised the achievements of Georgia's 2003 Rose Revolution, and urged Georgians to persevere amid unavoidable difficulties during the reform process. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. In addition, Bush said the country's chief political issue settling the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be resolved through peaceful means.
As Bush prepared to depart, Saakashvili revealed that US officials had told him the visit to Georgia "was the best reception the American president has ever had."
"It [Bush's visit] means that there are things we can do well," Saakashvili continued. "It shows that this country is capable of dealing with difficult tasks."
The only controversy connected with the visit came to light long after Bush had left the country. On May 11, National Security Council Secretary Gela Bezhuashvili announced that a dud grenade had been discovered not far from where Bush and Saakashvili stood addressing a crowd, estimated at about 100,000, on Tbilisi's Freedom Square. The grenade, which was not primed to explode, never posed a threat to Bush or Saakashvili, US and Georgian officials insisted. Investigators believe that an individual tossed the grenade during Bush's speech. Bezhuashvili told journalists that the incident seemed designed to "scare people and attract attention." The investigation was ongoing, US and Georgian officials indicated.
Despite the grenade incident, many Georgians seemed to share Saakashvili's feelings of pride. Non-governmental organization activists gave Bush high marks for his actions and comments made in Tbilisi. Giorgi Meladze, a program director at the Georgian NGO Liberty Institute, praised Bush for reminding Georgians that building a democratic society can be a complicated process. "Reforms are painful. They will cause some distrust in the public, but it [the process] needs to be started," he said in an interview with EurasiaNet.
"I think this type of message helps the [reform] process be like a clock-moving and never stopping," Meladze said, adding that he was additionally encouraged by Bush's call for the development of a strong and independent judicial branch of government. "We don't have a judiciary branch," he said, although he noted that judicial reforms have commenced. "[They] need to have a guarantee of independence."
Bush also earned plaudits for his advocacy of a negotiated solution to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts. Marina Meshvildishvili -- the president of Tskhinvali House, an alliance of 15 Georgian and South Ossetian NGOs that promotes conflict-resolution initiatives suggested that if the rhetoric used by Bush had been employed over a decade ago, when the South Ossetia conflict began, much human suffering could have been avoided. "In South Ossetia they want peace as well," she said. At the same time, Meshvildishvili expressed disappointment that Bush's meeting with representatives of minority groups lasted only 45 minutes, saying it was impossible to touch upon the intricacies of Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts in such a short time-frame.
Meshvildishvili said she would seek to secure US Embassy support for initiatives that could help spread the Bush message, including a joint American-Georgian program for youth in South Ossetia. "[What] do they [South Ossetian young people] know about democracy and civil society?" she said. "They don't know anything about life outside of Tskhinvali [the Sought Ossetian capital].
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Tbilisi.