Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bush: Georgia Is an Inspiration

ReutersPresidents Bush and Saakashvili acknowledging the Tbilisi crowd Tuesday.
TBILISI, Georgia -- U.S. President George W. Bush said Tuesday that Georgia was proving to the world that determined people could rise up and claim their freedom from oppressive rulers.

"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," Bush said in speech to a crowd of tens of thousands of people Freedom Square.

"You gathered here armed with nothing but roses and the power of your convictions and you claimed your liberty. And because you acted, Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world."

In a line that appeared directed at President Vladimir Putin, Bush declined to support the bids of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two separatist regions aligned with Moscow, to gain independence from Georgia. "The sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected ... by all nations," Bush said.

Freedom Square is where Soviet forces violently broke up large demonstrations in 1989.

Bush spoke to a massive crowd that filled the square and spilled out into the roads that feed into the plaza. The buildings around the square were freshly painted for Bush's visit, the first from a U.S. president, and hundreds of people dressed in red, white and blue stood in a human formation of the U.S. flag, with another group forming the red and white Georgian flag.

"When Georgians gathered here 16 years ago, this square had a different name," Bush said. "Under Lenin's steely gaze, thousands of Georgians prayed and sang and demanded their independence. The Soviet Army crushed that day of protest, but they could not crush the spirit of the Georgian people."

He hoped the speech would balance his presence a day earlier at a World War II victory celebration in Red Square and close his four-nation trip on a high note. Estimates of the crowd size -- in the square and the surrounding streets -- varied wildly, from less than 100,000 to more than 300,000.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said it was by far the largest gathering ever in the country, and it was certainly one of the largest Bush has ever addressed.

Saakashvili, who led the Rose Revolution in 2003 which overthrew a corrupt government, praised Bush as "a leader who has contributed as much to the cause of freedom as any man of our time. ... We welcome a freedom fighter."

"You stood with us during our revolution, and you stand with us today," Saakashvili said. "On behalf of my nation I would like to say, 'Thank you.'"

Ongoing fights in violent separatist regions, military campaigns against terrorists in the Pankisi Gorge and the recent abductions of foreigners presented security challenges that required Bush to deliver his open-air speech from a podium surrounded by a high wall of a clear bulletproof screen with sharpshooters on rooftops surrounding the square.

But the safety concerns were outweighed by Bush's desire to lend support to Georgia and hold it up as a success story.

"You are making many important contributions to freedom's cause, but your most important contribution is your example," Bush said.

"In recent months, the world has marveled at the hopeful changes taking place from Baghdad to Beirut to Bishkek. But before there was a Purple Revolution in Iraq or an Orange Revolution in Ukraine or a Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, there was the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

"Now across the Caucasus, in Central Asia and the broader Middle East, we see the same desire of liberty burning in the hearts of young people," Bush said.

"They are demanding their freedom, and they will have it."