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Georgian President-Elect Saakashvili to be Inaugurated - 2004-01-24


Georgia's president-elect, Mikhail Saakashvili, visited a monastery Saturday, one day before being sworn in as the new leader of the former Soviet republic. The Georgian capital, Tbilisi, is bustling with last-minute preparations, amid the arrival of scores of foreign dignitaries.

President-elect Sakaashvili began inaugural festivities by traveling to a monastery 200 kilometers northwest of Tbilisi Saturday to receive a blessing from the leader of the dominant Georgian Orthodox Church.

Mr. Sakaashvili also took an oath on the Bible as he stood at the gravesite of King David the Builder who is believed to have increased Georgia's wealth and prestige nearly 1,000 years ago.

While clearly symbolic, the day's event is in many ways fitting, given that many Georgians are looking to Mr. Sakaashvili to do the same, following a decade of what they view as corruption and misrule under ousted leader Eduard Shevardnadze.

The 36-year-old U.S. trained lawyer secured a landslide victory in this month's special presidential elections after leading last November's Rose Revolution - the massive street protests that peacefully forced Mr. Shevardnadze from power.

In the weeks since then, president-elect Sakaashvili has moved quickly to court foreign support for the daunting challenges he faces ahead, which include everything from fighting corruption to establishing a budget, and improving Georgia's dilapidated infrastructure.

He will also have to find a way to deal with separatists in the semi-autonomous regions of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Adjara - and make peace with Moscow, which still has Soviet-era military bases and personnel in Georgia, despite an earlier international agreement to withdraw.

Georgian-Russian relations have been challenged by Moscow's accusation that Tbilisi has done nothing to remove Chechen rebels from the volatile Pankisi Gorge, which borders southern Russian and which Moscow claims is a hideout for international terrorists.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to raise these and other issues when he meets with Mr. Sakaashvili in Georgia on the sidelines of the inauguration, and then again in Moscow on Monday and Tuesday, during talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.

The United States is interested in helping secure long-standing stability in Georgia, which is of strategic interest as well as the site of the planned Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that will carry Caspian Sea oil to Western markets.

Secretary Powell was scheduled to arrive in the Georgian capital late Saturday, where last-minute preparations were under way before Sunday's swearing-in ceremonies.

The newly adopted red and white flag of Mr. Sakaashvili's political party fluttered at locations across Tbilisi, including in front of parliament, the center of Georgia's Rose Revolution and adjacent to where Mr. Sakaashvili will take the oath of office as president.

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