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1/7/04 - GEORGIA ELECTS A NEW PRESIDENT - 2004-01-08

Mikheil Saakashvili won the presidential election in the former Soviet Republic of Russia of Georgia by a landslide. Mr. Saakashvili was the leader of the bloodless “rose revolution” that led to the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze on November 23rd. According to election observers, the vote proceeded without violence or the massive irregularities that marred balloting in November. An unprecedented eighty-three percent of eligible voters went to the polls.

Upon his victory, Mr. Saakashvili said, “I know that I have a very heavy burden to take on. . . . But if I can unify everyone, we can be a prosperous country and prove once more we can live in a normal country in the world.”

Many challenges face the new Georgian president. The national treasury remains empty, the capital is crowded with refugees, wages are months overdue, and corruption is pervasive. Moreover, several regions remain outside central government control. Mr. Saakashvili says he will continue Georgia’s pro-Western orientation while seeking better relations with Russia. He spoke through a translator:

“One of the priorities of the new leadership is to develop a close, friendly partnership with Russia. We have our interests and of course Russia is a superpower with its interests. But I am sure we will find a way to improve our relations in a new period of partnership.”

President-elect Saakashvili received a legal education in the United States and served as Mr. Shevardnadze’s justice minister before quitting in frustration. Mr. Saakashvili led protests for weeks until finally, bearing roses, he stormed into the Georgian parliament during a Shevardnadze speech. The president later resigned.

Clearly, the people of Georgia are looking for major changes. As Giga Bokeria, a Saakashvili supporter and co-founder of the Liberty Institute, said, “The biggest challenge is, he must deliver all these reforms we demand from him. That’s what Shevardnadze failed to do, and that’s what he must do. Nobody expects immediate results. We’ll give him some time. But we expect immediate steps in the right direction.”