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New Georgia leader targets Shevardnadze

Mikhail Saakashvili, the new leader of Georgia, promised Tuesday to target the assets of ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, whose alleged corruption helped sweep Saakashvili to power.
Mikhail Saakashvili, apparent winner of the presidential elections, during an interview in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Attacking corruption is the key to fixing Georgia’s many troubles, and the targets will include the assets of ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze, the country’s new leader said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press.

Mikhail Saakashvili, leader of the wave of November protests that drove out Shevardnadze, won an apparent landslide victory in presidential elections Sunday, six weeks after Shevardnadze stepped down.

With ballots counted from 25 percent of the 3,000 polling places in the former Soviet republic, Saakashvili had 96.7 percent of the vote against five minor candidates, Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili said. Election officials said the proportion was unlikely to change substantially when final results were released Wednesday.

Saakashvili said his first efforts after being inaugurated Jan. 25 — Shevardnadze’s birthday — would be to push for “drastic anti-corruption legislation.”

'Richest of them all'
Graft, including the siphoning off of foreign aid and state assets falling into private hands, has weakened the country to the brink of collapse, and “the richest of them all was the Shevardnadze family,” Saakashvili told the AP and Associated Press Television News in his first wide-ranging comments to Western media after Sunday’s vote.

“I never promised Shevardnadze we would not take assets he misappropriated. I promised him his physical security,” Saakashvili, 36, a U.S.-educated lawyer, said in an interview at the Krtsanisi presidential residence in the steep hills on the edge of the capital, Tbilisi.

Many of Georgia’s 5.5 million people live in severe poverty, and even the more fortunate struggle with frequent electricity and water failures, shaky communications and a health care system that Saakashvili called “one of the most barbaric in the world.”

“We cannot restore the old social welfare system” of Soviet times, he said, adding that making the economy healthy was the only way to lift Georgians out of misery.

The endemic corruption — Georgia is perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, according to the watchdog group Transparency International — has discouraged foreign investors and stifled local entrepreneurship.

Saakashvili acknowledged that those who had benefited from corruption might try to fight back, perhaps violently. Georgia has a history of political violence, including two assassination attempts against Shevardnadze.

“We’ve assumed these risks by running for this office,” Saakashvili said in a room where a biography of John F. Kennedy titled “An Unfinished Life” lay atop a table.

Election considered fair
International observers said the voting, though marred by sporadic violations, was largely free and fair. The overwhelming support for Saakashvili indicated Georgians’ exasperation with the deterioration of their lives and their hopes for the new leadership.

“I know that expectations are very high,” Saakashvili said. “But it would be really incredible to do things in the same bad way, or worse.”

One of Georgia’s most promising economic prospects is the construction of an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, crossing through its territory.

The project is heavily backed by the United States, and that prompted speculation that Saakashvili’s moves to oust Shevardnadze were the result of string-pulling by Washington.

“They never helped us as a political force. They kept a safe distance from the opposition,” Saakashvili said of the United States.

Ties to the West
Saakashvili professes to have firm Western leanings, which could annoy Georgia’s giant neighbor Russia. Relations are already tense over the presence of Russian troops in Georgia and Moscow’s cultivation of the leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two Georgian regions that have been de-facto independent since separatist wars in the 1990s.

He insisted that Russia honor an agreement to remove its troops. Although the pullout has been delayed, he will not insist on haste, saying “it’s important that [Russia] feel themselves protected.”

On Abkhazia, Saakashvili said he would seek peaceful dialogue, but he demanded that the ethnic Georgians who fled the province in the war — an estimated 60 percent of Abkhazia’s residents — be returned to their homes.

During the November protests, Saakashvili’s opponents denounced him as a populist demagogue and even a proto-fascist. But he said he had learned from watching Shevardnadze.

“I will never pretend to be the law in this country,” he said.