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Bush to Praise Democracy in Georgia During Visit

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Although Georgia has a tense relationship with Russia, it is enjoying steadily improving ties with the United States. President Bush has voice praise for Georgia's democratic elections, for reforms and for efforts to fight corruption. We'll get a preview of President Bush's final stop from NPR's Lawrence Sheets in Tblisi, Georgia.

LAWRENCE SHEETS reporting:

For two centuries, Georgia struggled to maintain its identity under czarist and then Soviet rule, and since becoming independent 13 years ago, Georgia has pursued perhaps the most pro-American foreign policy of any former Soviet republic, both under former President Eduard Shevardnadze and the new young leader who toppled him in the Rose Revolution of 2003, 37-year-old Mikhail Sakashvili. Political scientist Alexander Andelli(ph) says the first-ever visit to Georgia by a US president is an affirmation of Georgia's drive to get out of Russia's shadow.

Mr. ALEXANDER ANDELLI (Political Scientist): I think it's very important to us to feel that the US president is here, because we are small, weak country, constantly under Russian pressure and blackmail, I would say. And the visit of such a powerful man, you know, it just gives us boost, and also we feel that we are not nobodies and we are not on the outskirts of the former Russian empire.

SHEETS: The bitterness between Russia and Georgia runs deep and has sometimes threatened to explode into military confrontation. Georgia alleges Russia is out to annex its territory by openly supporting two separatist regions of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which want closer ties with Moscow.

Another thorny issue are three Russian military bases on Georgian soil. The Georgians want them gone now, but the Russians want more time to leave. President Sakashvili says that's why he chose to boycott today's World War II commemoration in Moscow.

President MIKHAIL SAKASHVILI (Georgia): I think it's one of the last legacies of Soviet period, the presence of former Soviet and present Russian troops, and so in these circumstances, when one of the last legacies of the Soviet totalitarian domination here in this part of the world has not been liquidated, I would rather stay here.

SHEETS: The Russians are already smarting over President Bush's earlier stop in Latvia, another former Soviet republic with which the Kremlin has a frosty relationship. Vacheslav Nikenov(ph) is an analyst in Moscow with close ties to the Russian government.

Mr. VACHESLAV NIKENOV (Analyst): Actually he couldn't choose the worst places to go if he wants to impress Russians because I personally take it as an insult because Latvia and Georgia are the two countries which are most anti-Russian on Earth. So it would be like Putin going to Washington for some important celebration through Cuba and then leaving through Pyongyang, through North Korea.

SHEETS: Russia suspects America is out to expand its influence onto its borders. The US has military advisers here training Georgia's fledgling army, officially to help Georgia counter terrorist threats but also to guarantee security for a new multibillion-dollar oil pipeline running through Georgia.

Georgia has also been one of the most enthusiastic backers of the Ira War. President Sakashvili committed 850 troops to the coalition, a huge number for such a small, relatively poor country. But though even most domestic opponents of the Georgian government say they support close ties with the US, some characterized the troop commitment for Iraq as a step too far. And they say they'd like President Bush to be more critical of Sakashvili. They accuse the young leader of being too volatile and of amassing too much power in his own hands.

(Soundbite of construction)

SHEETS: It is clear from the gargantuan repair job under way in this dilapidated city just how seriously the Georgian government is taking the visit by President Bush. Along the route that President Bush will pass, workers have been toiling around the clock to quickly do up buildings that haven't seen a paint job for decades. Roads are being repaved. Millions of dollars were spent on the impromptu face-lift. Some residents say there's a Potemkin's Village-type quality to the repairs. Others say it's just a bit of typically over-the-top Georgian hospitality. And they say if a visit by a US president is what it takes to get things fixed up, they wish he'd visit every day.

Lawrence Sheets, NPR News, Tblisi.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lawrence Sheets
Lawrence Scott Sheets concentrates on covering the Caucasus region of the former Soviet Union from his base in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia. From 2001 to 2005, Sheets was NPR’s Moscow Bureau Chief, and covered the countries of former USSR, including Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia. Among major stories Sheets has covered for NPR have been the tragic siege of a school by a pro-Chechen separatist terror group in 2004 in which 330 mostly children were killed, the 6-week long "Orange Revolution" that brought down Ukraine’s old government in 2004, and the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia in 2003. Sheets has also reported for NPR from Iran and Afghanistan. He covered the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan during 2001 and 2002, including the bloody Taliban uprising at a fortress in Mazar e Sharif in which hundreds of people died.Sheets’ reports can be heard on NPR's , All Things Considered, Day to Day, and Weekend Edition.