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Saakashvili Will be Georgia's New President, says Election Commission - 2004-01-07

Election officials in Georgia say the man who led the revolution late last year, Mikhail Saakashvili, will be the new president.

Georgia's election commission says Mr. Saakashvili won more than 90 percent of the vote in Sunday's presidential election, well above the 50 percent he needed to be elected.

Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili says that most of the ballots have been counted, and Mr. Saakashvili will officially be declared the winner once the total count is in.

The 36-year-old lawyer is due to be sworn in January 25.

Mr. Saakashvili was always the overwhelming favorite to win the election, because of the pivotal role he played in forcing former President Eduard Shevardnadze from power last November, in what became known as the Rose Revolution.

Mr. Saakashvili says his priority will be to raise the living standards of Georgia's five million people, more than half of whom live below the poverty line. He blames rampant corruption for much of the problem, and has called on foreign governments to freeze the bank accounts held by former government officials and members of Mr. Shevardnadze's family.

The new Georgian leader estimates that $1.7 billion were taken out of Georgia into foreign bank accounts, especially in Switzerland, adding to the country's massive foreign debt.

Mr. Saakashvili has called for assistance from the international community to deal with the economic crisis, especially from the United States, where he studied and practiced law.

Mr. Saakashvili has also turned his attention to neighboring Russia, trying to reassure the Kremlin that he wants to improve long-strained relations.

Georgia's Foreign Minister went to Moscow on Wednesday for talks with Russian officials on bilateral issues, including the presence of Russian military bases in Georgia and the situation in two breakaway regions in Georgia that have long received Russian support.

A third region with separatist tendencies, Adjaria, has signaled it is willing to work with Mr. Saakashvili for now, despite having misgivings about some of his past statements concerning autonomy.

Georgian officials have also announced that elections for a new parliament will be held in late March rather than in January, as previously planned.

Interim President Nino Burjanadze gave no reason for the change, although officials have said they need more time to prepare for a new vote.

It was a parliamentary election in early November that triggered the street protests against Mr. Shevardnadze, amid evidence that the results had been rigged. Those protests drove him from power.