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Georgia: Saakashvili Inaugurated As President

Prague, 26 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Mikheil Saakashvili was inaugurated yesterday as Georgia's new president, taking the post amid hopes that he can bring prosperity for ordinary citizens of the former Soviet republic.

It was a day of military music and parades in the capital of Tbilisi as the former opposition leader formally took on the responsibilities as Georgian head of state.

Crowds of supporters enthusiastically chanted Saakashvili's nickname -- Misha -- as he arrived in front of the parliament building to take his oath.
Just two months ago, the 36-year-old Saakashvili led massive street demonstrations that ousted former President Eduard Shevardnadze.
For yesterday's event, the parliament was decorated with four white and red medieval-styled banners that had been adopted as a symbol of Saakashvili's opposition movement.
"I'm not pro-American or pro-Russian. I am pro-Georgian."

After being sworn in, Saakashvili signed an act that made the banner Georgia's new official flag.

In his inaugural remarks, Saakashvili recalled the memory of Georgians who have fought throughout history for the country's independence -- including those who opposed the Bolshevik revolution.

"Greetings to all the guests. This is the place where all the devoted heroes of Georgia died for independence and the freedom of Georgia. They did everything not to allow the Bolsheviks to occupy Georgia and to cut Georgia off from international life during those decades," Saakashvili said. He also told members of Georgia's military services that there is a need "to create a new army and revive the spirit that helped save Georgia" during the times of its legendary medieval kings.

"We'll do everything to improve the conditions in the army and to make Georgia's armed forces something more prestigious and more important for each Georgian," he said. Saakashvili won more than 96 percent of the vote in presidential elections earlier this month. His agenda is ambitious. He is promising to lift the country from its post-Soviet morass of economic decline, civil wars, and corruption in order to launch a new era of stability and growth.

In a visit seen to emphasize U.S. interests in the strategically placed south Caucasus country, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell attended the inauguration ceremony and was warmly greeted by Saakashvili. Washington supports the construction of a key pipeline through Georgia in order to transport Caspian Sea oil resources to Western markets starting next year. Analysts say that makes stability in Georgia important for the United States.

But Russia and the United States are wary of each other's activities in Georgia. Powell yesterday sought to calm Russian concerns about a small group of U.S. military instructors that is in the country. Saakashvili told reporters that he would try to maintain good relations with both the United States and Russia while doing what is best for Georgia. "We need to survive in a very complicated geopolitical environment and we don't want to turn this country into a battlefield between the different superpowers. I'll do whatever it takes not to alienate any of the countries, especially our neighbors. We want good relations with Russia. I'm not pro-American or pro-Russian. I am pro-Georgian," Saakashvili said.

But Saakashvili did complain about the continued presence of Russian military forces in Georgia more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. "Basically, we are talking about a few hundred Russian soldiers and officers with some old fashioned tanks -- metal scrap equipment -- that are useless for Russian security. Now they are not useful for Russian security. They have symbolic importance to bolster imperial self-confidence of some people in Moscow. Why we are worried by [this], however, is that it is a good framework for any potential future intervention in Georgia. And I hope [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin is not contemplating any of that. But if any other future government, if they have this kind of illegal base here and they can use it for future possible aggression, that is not acceptable. We should exclude any risks of that," Saakashvili said.

Saakashvili said he welcomes a personal meeting with Putin to discuss bilateral relations. "I'm willing to have one of the first visits to Moscow and to see [President Putin] personally and to develop some personal relations. By the way, [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush, when we spoke [by telephone], especially underlined that they are also welcoming very much if we deliver our own personal contacts with the Russians and with Putin," Saakashvili said.

Powell also called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Georgia in accordance with a promise made by Moscow in 1999. Powell told reporters he would raise the issue during his own talks in Moscow, where he is traveling next. Powell also pledged that the United States would provide $166 million of assistance to Georgia during the current fiscal year. He conveyed an invitation from Bush for Saakashvili to visit Washington on 25 February.

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