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Georgians to Elect New President - 2004-01-03

Voters in Georgia go to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president to succeed Eduard Shevardnadze, who was ousted from office. The likely winner is the man who was the driving force in what became known as the Rose Revolution in November.

Mikhail Saakashvili, 36, is the overwhelming favorite to win Sunday's election, largely due to his pivotal role in forcing Mr. Shevardnadze from power.

The maverick, U.S.-educated lawyer led the mass street protests in the wake of a disputed parliamentary election in November.

Mr. Saakashvili's defining moment came when he shouted down Mr. Shevardnadze inside Georgia's parliament after a crowd pushed its way into the building as the former president tried to open a new legislative session. Within minutes, Mr. Shevardnadze was hustled out the back door by his bodyguards. He resigned soon after.

There are five other candidates running for president along with Mr. Saakashvili. But no one is seen as having any chance against the popular Misha, as he is commonly known.

With victory seemingly a certainty, Mr. Saakashvili has already taken steps to reassure neighboring Russia, which watched the Rose Revolution with unease over what Moscow sees as Georgia's pro-western tilt.

Last week Mr. Saakashvili said he hopes to travel to Moscow soon for direct talks aimed at improving relations that have long been strained.

Separatism is the key issue that divides Moscow and Tbilisi, with both trading accusations of supporting breakaway regions in the other's territory.

Some accommodation was reached on the issue with the announcement that the semi-autonomous Black Sea region of Ajaria will take part in Sunday's poll after all. The leader of Ajaria had earlier stated that voters there would boycott the vote.

However the other two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will not take part. Both declared their independence from Georgia, allegedly with Russia's help after fighting off Georgian troops a decade ago.

The other major problem confronting Georgia is tackling massive corruption, as well as rising expectations in the wake of Mr. Shevardnadze's downfall. Millions of Georgians threw their support behind Mr. Saakashvili and his colleagues when they pledged to pay wages and pensions that have long gone unpaid.

The dramatic fall in living standards under the previous government fueled the popular anger against Mr. Shevardnadze. But with the government essentially broke and confronted by a massive debt, analysts say it will be difficult to deliver on promises to improve the desperate economic situation anytime soon.

Support from western nations may be of some help, with the outside world concerned about stability in the volatile Caucasus region as a whole.

Major oil companies also plan to build a new oil pipeline through Georgia to ship crude from Caspian Sea oilfields to world markets.