By Emil Danielyan
President George W. Bush made on Tuesday an emphatic endorsement of political reform in Georgia, saying that its spectacular “rose revolution” has sent important signals to the world and neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan in particular.
Bush told tens of thousands of Georgians on a historic visit to Tbilisi that the November 2003 uprising and ensued developments that have turned their country into a “beacon of liberty for this region and the world.” He would not specify, however, whether he thinks Georgia’s two South Caucasus neighbors need similar regime change in order to become more democratic.
“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,” Bush told a jubilant crowd in the Georgian capital’s Freedom Square, the scene of the bloodless revolution 18 months ago. “Your courage is inspiring democratic reformers and sending a message that echoes across the world.”
“Across the Caucasus and Central Asia and the broader Middle East we see the same desire for liberty burning in the hearts of young people,” he said. “They are demanding their freedom and they will have it.” The United States will use the Georgian example to “advance the cause of freedom and peace,” he added.
Speaking at a joint news conference earlier in the day with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, the man who led the “rose revolution,” Bush said the United States will support efforts at democratic change both in the region and “the broader Middle East.” "Standing with the president of Georgia should send a message that we embrace freedom movements and we stand with young democracies.”
A senior Bush administration official indicated last week that such comments will not mean that the U.S. is seeking the removal of regimes whose democratic credentials have been seriously questioned by the West. The official said in particular that Washington supports “reformers” both within and outside the governments of Armenia and Azerbaijan.
None of the elections held in the two ex-Soviet states since independence has been judged free and fair by Western observers and chronic vote rigging remains the main source of political instability in the South Caucasus. The Georgian revolution, for example, was sparked by a reputedly fraudulent parliamentary election.
“As you watch free people gathering in squares like this across the world, waving their nations’ flags and demanding their God-given rights, you can take pride in the fact that they have been inspired by your example and they take hope in your success,” Bush said in his speech at the Tbilisi rally.
It was not clear if Bush also referred to last year’s anti-government demonstrations in Yerevan. The Armenian opposition, which refuses to recognize the legitimacy of President Robert Kocharian’s 2003 reelection, was clearly buoyed by the success of the Georgian revolt and tried unsuccessfully to topple him with a campaign of street protests.
The Armenian authorities denounced the campaign as unconstitutional, arresting and briefly jailing hundreds of opposition activists across the country and harshly breaking up the most important opposition rally in the capital. The crackdown was condemned by the Council of Europe, Human Rights Watch and other international organizations.
The U.S. government, which had strongly criticized the 2003 presidential election in Armenia, reacted cautiously to those events, urging both sides to show restraint. Its apparent reluctance to support the Armenian opposition has been highlighted by the U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans. He has repeatedly stated in recent months that Armenia is “headed in the right direction” both politically and economically.
This might explain why virtually no leader of the Armenian opposition was invited to the official opening of the new U.S. embassy in Yerevan last Friday. The high-profile ceremony was attended by Kocharian and most members of his cabinet.
Some observers believe that the Bush administration is unlikely to undercut Kocharian and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev now that it sees a fresh chance for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a key U.S. objective in the region. The two leaders are scheduled to meet in Warsaw next week for what Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian has described as make-or-break talks on Karabakh.
(Itar-Tass-Photolur photo: Bush and his wife Laura greeted by Saakashvili on their arrival in Tbilisi on Monday.)