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Saakashvili Sworn In as New President

Mikheil Saakashvili, a fiery 36-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer and anti-corruption crusader, was inaugurated Sunday as Georgia's new president, taking the helm amid high hopes that he can bring prosperity to the country.

Saakashvili, his hand on Georgia's constitution, took the presidential oath in front of the parliament building where two months ago he led protesters who evicted longtime former President Eduard Shevardnadze.

The parliament on Sunday was hung with four huge white and red medieval banners used by Saakashvili's opposition movement. After being sworn in, Saakashvili signed an act making the red-on-white, five-cross banner Georgia's new flag.

"We must create the Georgia that our ancestors dreamed of, the Georgia that we dream of," Saakashvili told a crowd of thousands, some waving tiny versions of the new flag, some holding flowers symbolizing the November "Rose Revolution" against Shevardnadze.

Saakashvili raised the European Union flag opposite the new Georgian flag on the parliament steps, signaling his desire for integration with the West.

"Our place is in European civilization," he said. "This, too, is the Georgian flag."

Saakashvili also said Georgia needs a strong army, and after his inaugural speech he saluted as camouflage-clad servicemen paraded past, chins jutting. A handful of helicopters buzzed over Tbilisi's main avenue, followed by two pairs of fighter jets that screamed overhead as police rode through on horseback.

Saakashvili plunged into the crowd after the ceremony, shaking hands and walking up the avenue to intermittent cheers.

"We are so happy this day has come at last. This is the beginning of democratic life in Georgia," said Zhuzhuna Chapidze, a 51-year-old woman who came to the inauguration with her grandson.

"We have very high hopes for the future, he will get things done very fast," said Mzia Bekauri, 40, who said she had quit her teaching job under Shevardnadze because she was earning 16 lari ($8) a month.

Saakashvili said that one of the new leadership's key tasks is to "uproot corruption" that has kept the economy mired in its post-Soviet morass.

He said the most important challenge is to bring unity to Georgia, where two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have won de facto independence in bloody wars in the early 1990s. Pushing his unification efforts, Saakashvili began the day by flying to the autonomous Black Sea region of Adzharia in a bid to ease tensions between its leaders and the central government.

Saakashvili and Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze, a longtime political foe, both expressed hopes for improved relations. But Abashidze supporters scuffled with backers of Saakashvili, who want Abashidze out.

Adzharia hosts one of two Russian military bases that remain in Georgia, a major irritant in their relations. Moscow has dragged its feet on their promised pullout, saying it will take at least 10 years.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who signaled the U.S. interest in Georgia by attending the inauguration, said Sunday that Russia should abide by a 1999 pledge to close the bases and that he would discuss the issue in Moscow, his next stop Monday. His Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, also attended the ceremony.

Powell, after meeting with Saakashvili, said the United States will provide $166 million of assistance to Georgia this year and conveyed an invitation from President George W. Bush for Saakashvili to visit Washington on Feb. 25.

Powell said he hopes Georgia will thrive and "serve as an example to the rest of the region, and the rest of the world, of what can be accomplished with a democratic government."

Saakashvili thanked the United States for providing support that the Georgians "will never forget."

Georgia's position astride a key pipeline that is to carry Caspian Sea oil resources to Western markets starting next year makes its stability important for the United States, which wants to diminish its reliance on Middle East oil.

Russia and the United States are wary of each other's activities in Georgia, where U.S. military instructors have been deployed, but both Powell and Saakashvili said the country should not be a focus of competition between Moscow and Washington.

Saakashvili repeated his vow to improve relations with Russia, which dominated Georgia for more than 200 years and still holds powerful levers of control, including most of its energy supplies.

"Today I am offering a hand of friendship to Russia," Saakashvili said.

Powell said Sunday there are still unanswered questions about Russian military equipment that Washington believes made its way to Iraq before last year's U.S. invasion, Reuters reported.

"There are still some outstanding questions in my mind," Powell said at a news conference in Tbilisi.

Powell said he had raised the issue before with Ivanov but did not say whether it would come up in talks Monday.

"He has provided answers to some of the questions with respect to what equipment might have gone in or not gone in [but I cannot] say that every question that is in our inventory of questions has been completely answered," Powell said. "It's an area of continuing discussion that I have with Ivanov."

(The Moscow Times 26.i.04)

 
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