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Saakashvili Appears Headed for Landslide Victory in Georgia - 2004-01-05


As the vote count continues from Sunday's presidential election in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the pre-vote favorite, Mikhail Saakashvili, appears to be heading for a landslide victory. The 36-year-old, U.S.-educated lawyer won more than 90 percent of the vote in some areas, although final results will not be released until later this week. The chairman of Georgia's election commission says Mr. Saakashvili got around 95 percent of the vote in regions that have sent in their results.

The election chief, Zurab Chiaberashvili, says the returns are preliminary and that the process of counting and reporting the vote is being hampered by bad weather in much of the mountainous country.

He says the turnout was an unprecedented 83 percent of the eligible voters, but that the final results will not be available until later in the week.

This appeared to leave no question that Mr. Saakashvili has been elected president of Georgia, a victory he claimed just hours after the polls closed Sunday.

Meanwhile, a team of international observers sent by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to watch over the voting reported that the weekend election was an improvement over previous votes in the country.

Bruce George, a British parliamentarian who headed up the OSCE team, told a news conference that the vote, although not perfect, nevertheless showed the former Soviet republic's new leadership was committed to democracy.

Mr. Saakashvili was the heavy pre-vote favorite to win because of the pivotal role he played in forcing the ouster of the unpopular Eduard Shevardnadze from the presidency in November, in what became known as the Rose Revolution. Mr. Saakashvili says his top priority is to raise the living standards of the Georgian people, which could be a difficult task, given the virtual collapse of the country's economy over the past decade.

He also says wants to improve relations with neighboring Russia, which expressed concern as it watched Mr. Shevardandze fall from power.

Mr. Saakashvili says he intends to travel to Moscow soon, to try to lay to rest the strains in past relations between Georgia and Russia. He said "one of the priorities of the new leadership is to develop a close, friendly partnership with Russia. We have our interests and of course Russia is a superpower with its interests. But I am sure we will find a way to improve our relations in a new period of partnership."

The new Georgian leader says he also hopes to bring two separatist regions back into the country, another thorny issue that will not be easy to deal with.

Mr. Saakashvili also says he wants to develop a close relationship with the United States, as well as with European countries.