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Georgia: Saakashvili Faces No Serious Opposition In Presidential Vote

Georgia holds presidential elections on Sunday (4 January). Leading candidate Mikheil Saakashvili appears to face no major opponents as he follows up his success in leading Georgia's "Revolution of the Roses," which ousted veteran President Eduard Shevardnadze in November.

Prague, 2 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgians go to the polls on Sunday (4 January) for a race in which one candidate clearly dominates the field.

He is Mikheil Saakashvili, the most prominent leader of Georgia's bloodless "Revolution of the Roses" that ousted veteran President Eduard Shevardnadze in November.

Still, Saakashvili is actively campaigning, even if pre-election surveys show no one close on his heels. That is because he still faces one foe with a good chance of defeating him -- voter apathy. It is a major concern because Sunday's presidential poll needs at least a 50 percent turnout to be considered valid.

Some observers warn that because Saakashvili is so widely predicted to be the winner, many Georgians may not feel they need to turn out to vote for him. His popularity is reflected by the fact he managed to file twice the minimum required number of signatures to be registered for the election, in which five other candidates also are participating.

Only one candidate is seen as mounting any challenge to Saakashvili, however. He is Temur Shashiashvili, a former provincial representative appointed by Shevardnadze. But he himself says he has no expectations of winning.

Saakashvili appeared to have voter turnout foremost in mind as he visited a soup kitchen in Tbilisi yesterday. There, speaking in Russian to people who have immigrated to Georgia from other parts of the former Soviet Union, he told his listeners he will represent their interests as a "personal friend."

"I will support each of you and will be a personal friend of yours. It is very important for all of you to feel that the person in power is not some foreign body who you see only on TV, but that he is your personal friend, your personal support," Saakashvili said.

But he also told them not to take his victory at the polls for granted and to be sure to visit a polling station. He underlined his point by asserting that if they don't cast their ballots, he won't win because this election -- unlike preceding ones -- will be a fair one.

"No one should think that Saakashvili has already won the election. If people do not come, we are not going to falsify the elections and [my] election won't happen. I cannot take Shevardnadze's path because then chaos and disturbances will begin in Georgia," he said.

In referring in such derogatory terms to the former president, Saakashvili was repeating what is his essential campaign promise -- that is, to usher in a new administration free of the last government's alleged corruption and abuse of power.

It was just such talk that prompted thousands of people to take to the streets in November to demand political change in Tbilisi. The protests came shortly after Shevardnadze's unpopular ruling party won the 2 November parliamentary elections amid reports of widespread fraud.

Analysts say Saakashvili, a former justice minister under Shevardnadze, is admired in Georgia today because he made a promise and delivered on it. As the most prominent figure in an opposition movement led by nongovernmental organizations, Saakashvili repeatedly said in November that Shevardnadze could be unseated. That prediction came true on 23 November, when Shevardnadze voluntarily stepped down to avoid further confrontations and possible violence.

Alexander Rondeli, a political analyst for the Strategic Foundation for Political Studies in Tbilisi, sums up Saakashvili's public image this way: "Mr. Saakashvili is supported by the majority of the people. People like him very much because he is a very appealing, attractive young man [and] very energetic. And also, you know, he achieves his goals. He was saying that Georgia will be without Shevardnadze, and he achieved it."

It also may help that Saakashvili -- who is in his mid-30s -- is a U.S.-trained lawyer who speaks fluent English and French, as well as Russian. That is seen as standing him in good stead to work with the United States to help rescue Georgia's struggling economy.

The country today is hard-hit economically, despite some $1.2 billion in U.S. aid during Shevardnadze's 11-year rule. Many Georgians view renewed U.S. support as essential both for putting the country back on its feet and for keeping Georgia from falling under the economic sway of Moscow.

But while Saakashvili is popular with voters today, there are daunting political challenges ahead that could assure a complicated presidency should he win on Sunday.

The country remains fragmented following a 1991 civil war that left three of its regions -- Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Adjaria -- outside the control of the central government.

Today, breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which lie along the Russian border, are considered totally dependent on Russia for their survival. At the same time, Moscow maintains a peacekeeping operation in Abkhazia that makes it a key broker in any process to reunite the country.

The central government's relations with Adjaria, which does not seek to secede but wants considerable economic and political independence, have been complicated by the cool reception that the region's leader has given to Saakashvili's political prominence. Aslan Abashidze supported Shevardnadze against the "Revolution of the Roses" and vowed at the time not to cooperate with the interim government that took his place.

Abashidze, who leads Adjaria's autonomous Revival Party, had said he would not allow polls to open on 4 January. But he reversed that position without explanation two days ago, saying his party will not participate in the poll but that people should cast their votes. That leaves open the question of how he would cooperate with Saakashvili as president.

Equally uncertain is how the other leaders of the "Revolution of the Roses" will remain united behind Saakashvili after having joined with him to oust Shevardnadze. That question is likely to come up soon as the country heads for parliamentary elections, possibly in spring.

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