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Georgia: Opposition Unites Behind Saakashvili For Top Post

Prague, 26 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of Georgia's former opposition announced today they have united behind Mikhail Saakashvili as their candidate for president in elections to be held on 4 January.

With Eduard Shevardnadze ousted as president and effectively silenced, and Georgia's interim government evidently in control, Georgians thus shifted from rejecting the troubled past to dealing with an uncertain future.

Acting President and parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze announced the choice of Saakashvili today. "We have made a decision that, in the future, presidential elections we will have a single candidate," she said. "We believe that it is crucially important that all differences should be put aside for the sake of unity, for the sake of tomorrow, and this single candidate in the elections will be Mikhail Saakashvili."

Possible presidential candidates had maneuvered only briefly for supporters and advantage, accomplishing in a couple of days what in normal circumstances would be a year's political work. The deadline for announcing candidacies is late today.

Saakashvili, Burdjanadze, and Zurab Zhvania led the main opposition groups. Saakashvili, however, was more highly visible as the main organizer of demonstrations that led to Shevardnadze's 23 November resignation.

Criticized by some as too volatile and something of a demagogue, Saakashvili won praise and respect for the conduct of the mass protests -- bloodless and almost perfectly nonviolent, yet also uncompromising.

He spoke yesterday of the importance of maintaining a united opposition. And today he accepted his colleague's support and offered his own for Burdjanadze for parliament. "I am ready to win in the Georgian presidential elections," he said. "And we are ready to win a large majority in the upcoming parliamentary elections. It is our decision that our list of candidates will be headed by the most likeable political face in Georgia, Nino Burdjanadze."

Zhvania completed the show of unity with a forward-looking promise. "We intend to use these 40 days [left until the presidential election] to define clearly the concrete program of actions that Georgia will follow after the 4 January elections," he said.

Parliamentary speaker Burdjanadze enjoys a reputation for calm deliberation. She moved firmly on Shevardnadze's departure to fulfill her constitutional role as acting president until the people can elect a successor. She echoed Saakashvili in the joint call for a united opposition, saying, "We should stand on each other's side."

Speaking yesterday in the parliament at a lectern decorated by a vase of roses, she showed a deft grasp of symbolism, for many are calling Shevardnadze's ouster the "Rose Revolution." She sniffed a rose, a reminder of those carried by many of the protesters.

In another move yesterday significant for its symbolism as well as for its practical effect, Burdjanadze rescinded the state of emergency that Shevardnadze had declared on 22 November as his presidency crumbled.

Georgia's Supreme Court effectively annulled yesterday the fraud-tainted parliamentary elections of 2 November. Parliament then unanimously set presidential elections for 4 January.

There were arguments yesterday and today over whether election officials should or could hold new parliamentary elections simultaneously for reasons both of economy and efficiency. Some argued that they should be delayed into the spring in order to allow for thorough preparation. A central problem for both elections was how to assemble a fair and valid voter register to replace the dubious lists rejected along with this month's election results. Parliament is soon expected to name the date for parliamentary elections.

Georgia faces more problems today than presidential and parliamentary politics. Its regions of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Adjaria are, to various degrees, independent of the rule of the national government in the capital, Tbilisi. All three regions had delegates today in Moscow for what they called "consultations" on their future relations with Russia and Georgia.

Even more pressing is the state of the country's economy. Burdjanadze declared yesterday that it is on the verge of collapse, as she put it, "even worse than we thought." She responded to congratulatory messages from the United States and other Western nations with urgent appeals for international aid.

For the last year of Shevardnadze's rule, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had suspended aid to a government increasingly perceived as hopelessly inefficient and riddled with corruption. News services report that Burdjanadze plans to ask parliament to adopt an IMF-approved budget for 2004 in order to seek a resumption of IMF assistance. Moving rapidly, she met today with an IMF delegation.

Speaking after his meeting with Burdjanadze, IMF representative Jonathan Dunn said the fund is "looking forward" to working with Georgia's interim administration.

Few countries have ever received foreign aid at the level Georgia has and yet had so little to show for it. The U.S. has sent $1.3 billion to Georgia over the last decade and the EU has provided a similar amount. But after inefficiency and corruption took its toll, Georgia carried an external debt of some $1.78 billion, lent largely for projects that never materialized. And, by one independent estimate, more than half its people are trying to survive on an income of $1 a day.

In the days since his departure, former President Shevardnadze has received a measure of the homeland and international approval that eluded him during his tenure as head of state. In an editorial, the "International Herald-Tribune" said Shevardnadze "exited with the grace that will allow him to retain his stature as one of the great statesmen in the final chapter of the Cold War." The newspaper lamented, "There is something tragic and troubling in the fact that a man who had such success as foreign minister of an empire (the Soviet Union) proved such a failure as president of a country one-fiftieth the size."

Shevardnadze himself firmly refuted suggestions that he would consider living in exile, perhaps in Germany. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has made clear that he would be welcomed. But Shevardnadze said he was going home. He flashed some of his old wit when reporters asked him today what advice he had for his successor. "Behave properly," he said.

(David Kakabadze of RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributed to this report.)