TBILISI, Georgia - Comparing the peaceful protest that revived democracy in this former Soviet republic to the persistent armed struggle for freedom in Iraq, President Bush told tens of thousands of cheering Georgians yesterday that their 2003 "Rose Revolution" is a beacon for the world.
"Your courage is inspiring democratic reformers and spreading a message that echoes throughout the world," Bush told the teeming crowd in sun-splashed Freedom Square, where demonstrators cheered the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and forced the resignation 12 years later of President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister.
"The seeds of freedom that were planted on Georgia's soil are flowering across the world," said Bush, his audience filling a plaza ringed by an ornate City Hall, old Georgian banks and a new American hotel.
Bush, who muted his public criticism of Russia while visiting Red Square this week, returned here to a theme he had raised in Latvia at the start of his five-day European trip - the need for Russia to live with its democratic neighbors.
He also relayed a message from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin that Russia will make good on its delayed pledge to remove two military bases from Georgia.
The festival-like appearance of the president in a square where protests led to Shevardnadze's resignation and the election of a young, reform-minded leader culminated with acrobatic dancers in native costume and choirs performing for the crowd on a crisp spring afternoon.
It reportedly was the largest assembly in the streets of Tbilisi since Georgians rallied against Shevardnadze in the so-called Rose Revolution that brought President Mikhail Saakashvili to power. In fact, Saakashvili told Bush at a joint news conference, this crowd was bigger.
"You know, right now we have in the streets of Tbilisi, as they are telling me, more than 150,000 people assembled," said Saakashvili, standing alongside Bush in a marbled four-story atrium of the Georgian Parliament building before the public rally.
"I can tell you, no event in the history of this country has ever assembled anything close to these numbers," Saakashvili said. "It was very genuine. This is not North Korea here. You cannot tell people to go out unless. ... For me, it was something very emotional."
This was precisely the chord Bush had hoped to strike at the close of his European tour. While much of Bush's mission focused on highlighting the painful history of Europe after World War II and commemorating victory over Nazi Germany 60 years ago, the White House was intent on going home with a forward-looking theme.
And few places support Bush's second-term theme - his inaugural commitment to the advance of democracy and "ending tyranny in the world" - more than Georgia.
In this mountainous country of 4.7 million, which was under Soviet rule for much of the 20th century and did not gain independence until 1991, democratic institutions have taken hold since adoption of a constitution in 1995.
The country boasts a robust educational exchange program with the United States, with many of the young volunteers who worked around the perimeter of Bush's ballyhooed visit telling of their years of study at places such as the University of Minnesota or State University of New York at Oswego.
Struggle for freedom
The plaza where Georgians rallied to see the American president was known as Lenin Square when Soviet tanks rumbled in in 1989 to quell an independence movement. Sixteen Georgians died. Two years later, Georgians massed in Freedom Square to celebrate the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 2003, when peaceful protests against Shevardnadze paved the way for elections that seated the 36-year-old, pro-Western Saakashvili in 2004, supporters of the overhaul carried roses into the 235-member parliament.
"The Rose Revolution was a powerful moment in modern history," Bush said in parliament hall yesterday. "It not only inspired the people of Georgia, it inspired others around the world that want to live in a free society."
Issue of minorities
Yet for all the legend surrounding the Rose Revolution, the country struggles with separatists who threaten the union. As Bush joined Saakashvili in a small, second-floor room of the parliament hall to meet with civil leaders, the two were careful to hail the importance of ethnic minorities in a thriving democracy.
"One of the most important things about democracy is to honor minority rights," Bush said. "In my own country, we struggle with this issue."
"We believe that Georgia is not weak because of its minorities," Saakashvili said. "Our diversity is our strength."
On his way to Tbilisi, Bush said he had spoken with Putin about a concern that prompted Saakashvili to boycott Monday's Victory Day parade in Moscow: Russia's delayed removal of its military bases.