President salutes Soviet victory in Moscow

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

MOSCOW -- In a once-unthinkable setting for a U.S. leader, President Bush took a place of honor on Red Square amid symbols of Soviet power Monday and saluted the greatest military victory of an empire formerly regarded as America's most-threatening enemy.

Tanks rumbled on the streets and warplanes screeched overhead as Bush and his wife, Laura, joined a long list of presidents, prime ministers and dignitaries at a grand parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union paid the heaviest price of all the triumphant allies -- nearly 27 million soldiers and citizens killed in what is remembered here as the Great Patriotic War.

Bush watched goose-stepping soldiers and flags emblazoned with the Soviet hammer and sickle that recalled the days of communist rule. He sat beside Putin on a reviewing stand next to Lenin's tomb.

White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Bush was not uncomfortable with the trappings. Bartlett said it "demonstrates how far we've come in the world" after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the nuclear-tinged standoff of the Cold War.

Despite sharp exchanges in recent days about Russia's retreat from democracy, Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to emphasize their friendship rather than their disputes during the wartime anniversary. But tensions were likely to flare anew when Bush visits the former Soviet republic of Georgia and delivers a speech today praising its democratic progress.

In Moscow, Bush met privately with leaders of private groups dealing with problems of AIDS, human rights, ecology issues and other areas. He told them he has good relations with Putin, and said that only people who have a good relationship can have good collaboration, said Svetlana Kotva, a lawyer for an organization for handicapped people.

Bartlett said Bush was not glossing over differences with Putin but that this was an occasion to honor Russia's sacrifices. Bartlett said the best way to be effective with Putin was through a constructive, personal relationship.

Bush typically is the center of attention at home and abroad. But he surrendered the spotlight to Putin in Moscow. Bush made no comments in public and simply joined in gatherings of leaders at the celebration.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the most moving part of the parade for the president was when the old, Soviet-era trucks rode by with World War II veterans inside, waving and holding roses.

"He talked about what a proud moment that was for those veterans," McClellan said.

Georgia is the last stop on a four-country trip that included visits to Latvia and the Netherlands.

Georgia's leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, boycotted Monday's ceremony to protest Russia's refusal to quickly withdraw two Soviet-era military bases it maintains in his country. He has asked Bush to intervene in what he calls "one of the last legacies of the Soviet totalitarian domination in this part of the world."

"This visit is support for our pursuit of democracy and a direct recognition of the role that Georgia, along with Ukraine, is playing in weakening Russia's imperial ambitions," lawmaker David Berdzenishvili said ahead of Bush's arrival.

After arriving in Georgia Monday night, the Bushes received an extraordinary welcome in the city's Old Town. Georgian dancers costumed in red-black-and-white and colorful headscarves performed dozens of routines around Bush, who smiled, clapped and even shook his hips.

Bush, who stayed longer than the 20 minutes allotted by the White House, was caught up in the enthusiasm, which contrasted sharply with the unfriendly protests that have greeted him in some other countries.

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