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Georgian President Lobbies for Western Aid, Investments at Davos Economic Forum


Georgia's president-elect, Mikhail Saakashvili, is using a forum of global business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland, to tout his country as a good place for western aid and investment, following years of strife and disorder. The young Georgian leader, who will be sworn into office this weekend, is already getting some results from his frenetic salesmanship.

Mr. Saakashvili's main sales pitch is that the West, and Europe in particular, have a stake in seeing a stable and prosperous Georgia. And, for that, he needs money - urgently - so that he can strengthen the Georgian government's ability to care for its people and provide guarantees for investors.

The 36-year-old, U.S.-trained lawyer has been huddling with businessmen, aid officials, and investment fund managers to try to convince them that the next six months are crucial if Georgia is to cement democracy and prevent a slide into conflict.

Mr. Saakashvili was the driving force behind the peaceful demonstrations that toppled former president Eduard Shevardnadze last year after parliamentary elections widely seen as fraudulent. The new president told reporters that Georgian authorities are taking decisive steps to create a better environment for foreign investment by instituting radical political and economic reforms.

"We have started a crackdown on corruption. A number of very high government officials ... were arrested on corruption charges," he explained. "We addressed foreign governments to freeze assets of corrupt government officials. We are starting drastic reforms in tax collection, customs office, investigative offices to establish order in Georgia and to really re-establish the rule of law. And I think that we are already quite successful."

Mr. Saakashvili's efforts appear to have already paid off. Billionaire investor George Soros and the United Nations are launching a trust fund to help him fight corruption. The fund will provide money for Georgia's empty treasury to pay government salaries and remove the temptation for bribe taking and corruption.

Mr. Saakashvili says his main foreign policy concern is to reassure Russia that Georgia recognizes its security interests in the Caucasus, but he also says Russia should stop treating Georgia as if it were still part of the old Soviet Union and honor its treaty obligations to withdraw from military bases in his country.

"Now, I hope that will change. I hope that there will be much more common sense, that pragmatism will prevail in [Russian] foreign policy," he said. "We want to be on good terms with Russia, but Russia should understand that we are an independent country. We should be respected as an independent country."

While not wanting to alienate Russia, Georgia's new leader says he will make it clear that his country's future lies in closer association with the West. He says Georgia's main objective is to become part of the European Union because, "Georgia is a European country."

European Union officials in Brussels say Georgia is likely to be considered soon for participation in the union's so-called wider Europe scheme, whereby the bloc's neighbors gradually build closer ties to the European Union.