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Georgia Presidential Election Set for Sunday - 2003-12-31

Campaigning is well under way for Sunday's presidential election in Georgia, a vote that follows last month's so-called Rose Revolution in the former Soviet republic. A semi-autonomous region has reversed its decision and says it will take part in the poll.

Georgia's new interim leadership won a boost when the leader of Ajaria agreed the Black Sea region would take part in Sunday's election.

Ajarian leader Aslan Abashidze said the decision was taken to avoid what he called a potential stain on Ajaria if it were to boycott the vote.

This was a reversal of Mr. Abashidze's earlier stand not to participate, taken soon after the country's Rose Revolution that ousted longtime president Eduard Shevardnadze last month.

Mr. Abashidze sided with Mr. Shevardnadze, in part due to his personal animosity for Mikhail Saakashvili, the 36-year-old lawyer who led mass street protests that helped force Mr. Shevardnadze's resignation.

Mr. Saakashvili is now the clear favorite to win the election.

The Ajarian leader changed his position after talks with interim Georgia President Nino Burjanadze and other officials in the new leadership.

Two other breakaway regions will not take part in the vote. Abkhazia and South Ossetia both declared their independence from Georgia after brief, but bloody, conflicts against Georgian troops a decade ago.

They favor joining neighboring Russia, which has cultivated a relationship with the two regions, causing strains in ties between Moscow and Georgia.

There are four candidates running against Mr. Saakashvili in Sunday's vote, including a former regional governor and two independents. Mr. Saakashvili has been campaigning in different parts of the country where he has been well received.

Despite the peaceful nature of the protests that led to Mr. Shevardnadze's downfall, there have been some acts of violence recently.

Earlier this week, unidentified assailants fired a shell at the Rustavi 2 television station, a channel that played a key role in publicizing the events of the November revolution.

An explosion also occurred recently outside the office of the opposition Labor Party. No one was injured in either incident.