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Georgians Head to the Polls to Elect New President - 2004-01-04


Voters in Georgia were casting ballots Sunday to elect a new president to succeed former President Eduard Shevardnadze. The almost certain winner is the man who led what became known as the "Rose Revolution" in November.

People were heading for polling stations all across Georgia with the exception of two regions that declared their independence from the country a decade ago.

Mikhail Saakashvili, 36, is the overwhelming favorite to win the 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.

There are other candidates running for president along with Mr. Saakashvili. But no one is seen as having any chance of beating the man most know by his popular nickname "Misha".

Victory is such a certainty, Mr. Saakashvili is already staying in one wing of the official presidential residence in Tbilisi.

He also moved recently to reassure neighboring Russia, which is worried about his close ties to the United States, where he studied law at Columbia University in New York.

Mr. Saakashvili said he wants to visit Moscow soon in a bid to improve relations that have been strained over the issue of separatism.

Georgia has long accused Russia of supporting the two regions that are not taking part in Sunday's vote, as well as a third region that also came close to boycotting the election.

In a surprise move, Mr. Saakashvili made a quick visit to one of the breakaway regions, South Ossetia, which he said he wants to bring back into Georgia by peaceful means. South Ossetia is normally off limits for politicians from Tbilisi.

But most of all, the likely new leader will need to tackle rampant corruption and the dramatic fall in living standards during Mr. Shevardanadze's rule.

Over half of Georgia's five million people live below the poverty line in a country that enjoyed the highest standard of living of all republics in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Saakashvili will likely look to the West for help, especially given the strategic interest foreign countries have in the region. Major international oil companies want to build a new pipeline through Georgia to carry crude from the Caspian Sea out to Western markets.

The election is being monitored by a 450-person team of observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

The delegation's head says it wants to be sure the new leadership keeps its word there will be no fraud in a country where elections have routinely been rigged in the past.