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Saakashvili Claims Victory in Georgian Presidential Election - 2004-01-05

Mikhail Saakashvili has claimed victory in Georgia's presidential election with exit polls showing he won more than 80 percent of the vote. The result was expected, and the 36-year-old reformer immediately announce a program of action for the impoverished former Soviet republic.

Mikhail Saaskashvili told a crowd of supporters that his victory was for all the people of the country. The 36-year-old said his plans are to tackle rampant corruption, rescue the economy, bring separatist regions back into Georgia and improve strained relations with neighboring Russia.

Mr. Saakashvili spoke within hours after polls had closed. The vote count is proceeding, but there was little question even before the election as to who would come out on top.

Mr. Saakashvili has been riding a wave of popularity since he led mass protests that forced longtime former President Eduard Shevardnadze to resign in November's so-called "Rose Revolution".

There were 5 other candidates running in the election, but they are all political unknowns who barely mounted campaigns against the popular "Misha", as the likely new president is widely known.

The U.S. educated lawyer said that assuming the burden of office is a great responsibility, and the task of dealing with Georgia's enormous problems won't be easy.

More than half of the country's 5 million people lives below the poverty line. Power outages are common, and Georgia is confronted with a massive debt that will complicate its efforts to overcome the economic crisis.

Having studied and practiced law in the United States, Mr. Saakashvili has strong links with the U.S. and he wants to have close cooperation with Washington as well as European countries.

At the same time, the young leader has paid particular attention to Russia, which has looked on his rise to power with misgivings in spite of having many differences with Mr. Shevardnadze.

Last week Mr. Saakashvili said he wants to visit Moscow soon, where the issue of separatism is sure to come up.

Georgia has long accused Russia of supporting two separatist regions that declared their independence a decade ago after brief but bloody fighting with Georgian troops.

A third region on the Black Sea, Adjaria, also has separatist tendencies but is waiting to see what Mr. Saakashvili's policies will be.

Voting did take place Sunday in Adjaria, but not in the other two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Mr. Saakashvili says he wants to hold talks with the leaders of the breakaway regions in hopes of reuniting the country.

Georgia is due to hold new parliamentary elections sometime soon, although a date has not been set.