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Saakashvili Promises to Lead Georgia to Unified Future - 2004-01-25

The man who led the former Soviet republic of Georgia's Rose Revolution, Mikhail Saakashvili, has been sworn in as the country's new president. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov looked on as Mr. Saakashvili took the oath of office in Tbilisi.

With a red rose in hand, Mr. Saakashvili took the presidential oath of office outside parliament, which was the rallying point for last November's massive street protests that peacefully ended long-time leader Eduard Shevardnadze's rule.

Mr. Saakashvili placed his hand on the constitution and pledged to lead Georgia to a brighter, more unified future.

Mr. Saakashvili said he would dedicate his presidency to Georgia's poor, as well as to what he called the nation's hopeful youth. And he urged all citizens to work together to help create a democratic country, free of corruption and separatist strife.

Mr. Saakashvili's inauguration comes on the 76th birthday of former leader Eduard Shevardnadze, a man Mr. Saakashvili once worked for, until they parted ways amid differences over governing.

Those differences played out more publicly in November, when Mr. Saakashvili led the massive street protests that peacefully forced Mr. Shevardnadze from power. The protests were sparked by what the opposition and western election observers said were flawed parliamentary elections.

President Saakashvili says the most important thing now is to free Georgia from corruption. He has also said he wants to be a unifier.

To that end, he thanked the United States for its support of Georgia as it seeks to implement pro-Western reforms. He also paid tribute to neighboring Russia, a nation Mr. Saakashvili said Georgia wants not as an enemy, but as a friend.

Mr. Saakashvili added that he was neither pro-American nor pro-Russian, but rather, pro-Georgian.

Both the United States and Russia have strategic interest in Georgia, which is soon to be home to a key oil pipeline that will bring Caspian Sea oil to the West. Russia also still has two Soviet-era military bases in Georgia, despite earlier international pledges to withdraw. The issue has been a sore point in Georgian-Russian relations.

Secretary of State Colin Powell Sunday urged Georgia's leaders to be patient in their demands that Russia withdraw, although he said Washington would continue to press Moscow to meet its commitment to pull out its troops.

"In my meetings tomorrow in Moscow, I expect that we will discuss our mutual interest in seeing a secure, stable, democratic Georgia," said Mr. Powell. "And I will once again reinforce to my Russian colleagues that we expect Moscow to abide by the Istanbul commitments of 1999."

Later Sunday, Secretary Powell travels to Moscow, where he is expected to hold wide-ranging talks beginning Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, among others.