By Holley and MeunargiaLos Angeles Times
January 5, 2004
A U.S.-educated lawyer who led recent protests that ousted President Eduard A. Shevardnadze appeared to have won a sweeping victory in presidential elections Sunday, and he swiftly pledged a crackdown on corruption. Mikheil Saakashvili, 36, a pro-Western reformer with a charismatic style and populist touch, took about 85% of the vote amid high turnout in the former Soviet republic, according to an independent exit poll. "We have prepared a set of very serious anticorruption measures," Saakashvili said at a Sunday evening news conference. "We will hold responsible all those government officials who brought the country to the crisis we are in today." Allegations of massive fraud in a November parliamentary election triggered the protests that brought down Shevardnadze a few weeks later, but the perception that presidential cronies had become rich at public expense fueled popular anger. The United States has major economic and strategic interests in Georgia, where Washington is seeking to promote stability and democracy while competing with Russia for influence. On a per-capita basis, the country of about 5 million people has been one of the largest recipients of American aid. An overwhelming victory by Saakashvili against five opponents means "the Georgian nation is united, it means the Georgian population supports a pro-Western course, and it means that we are happy with what happened with the revolution," said Alexander Rondeli, president of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, an independent Tbilisi think tank. The uprising against Shevardnadze's rule was dubbed the Rose Revolution after Saakashvili stormed the parliament building on Nov. 22 carrying a single long-stemmed rose as a symbolic replacement for a gun. He led crowds that chased Shevardnadze out of the building in mid-speech. The president -- a former Soviet foreign minister widely respected in the West for his role in ending the Cold War -- stepped down the next day. Rondeli predicted that Saakashvili will imprison some of the country's richest people. The size of his victory should reduce the risk of a violent backlash from those opposed to the country's new course, he added. "People are fed up with corruption. They want people in jail," Rondeli said. "People give him votes hoping that he'll do a kind of social revenge. A few people stole so much. People cannot tolerate that." Saakashvili described the strong vote in his favor as "an unprecedented mandate of trust." "I understand how heavy a burden I have taken on my shoulders, but I will do everything not to disappoint the Georgian people," he said. Tina Jashi, 69, a university professor interviewed outside a polling station, said she voted for Saakashvili because she expected him to fight corruption and help poor people. "He is young and energetic and cares for every citizen," she said.
Speaking to reporters after voting, Shevardnadze implied he had voted for Saakashvili. The ousted president offered praise and advice: "I would like to wish him to work hard, to talk less and act more. He has the talent, the skills and the education for that. He has a talent for contact with people. He has a big future." Saakashvili, a Columbia University Law School graduate, tried to run a high-profile anticorruption campaign after being named justice minister by Shevardnadze in 2000. He and the president clashed over those efforts, and he left the post the next year. Saakashvili said Sunday that building on close ties with the West marks the country's "main direction," but that he will also try to improve ties with Russia, which were strained under Shevardnadze. Georgia has expressed interest in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union, and Saakashvili is expected to push those goals. Washington is spending $64 million to train 2,000 Georgian soldiers for a rapid reaction force meant to block terrorists from establishing bases in the country's rugged border areas, in particular the region bordering the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya. The troops also could help protect a $3-billion U.S.-backed oil pipeline being built from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey's Mediterranean coast, which is expected to greatly increase the flow of Caspian Sea oil to world markets. Saakashvili expressed hope that better ties with Moscow would help restore Georgia's unity, torn by the early 1990s breakaway of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those regions fought secession wars and now exercise de facto independence with close ties to Russia. In a hopeful sign for Georgian unity, Aslan Abashidze, the strongman leader of Adzharia, an autonomous region on the country's Black Sea coast, backed down a few days ago from threats to ban presidential balloting in the area he controls. Abashidze, who allied himself with Shevardnadze during the November crisis, had charged that Sunday's election would be unconstitutional, but he ended up casting his own ballot 15 minutes before polling stations closed, local media reported. Abashidze changed his stance under strong U.S. diplomatic pressure and in response to concerns of students and professors who do not want to see Adzharia forced into dependence on Russia, Rondeli said. Abashidze also probably received guarantees from Saakashvili that he would not be forced from power, Rondeli said. Saakashvili said Sunday that he envisions unity "based on wide autonomy" for what have been breakaway regions. Critics have often charged that Saakashvili is too hotheaded to be a trustworthy leader, but supporters view his passion as a strength. "I don't believe he is too emotional," said Maka Salukvadze, 44, a Tbilisi woman who voted for him. "He is young and he has to be emotional. If he were not emotional, he wouldn't be able to do so many things."
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