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Georgian Parliament Approves New Prime Minister

Grigol Mgaloblishvili
TBILISI (Reuters) -- Georgia's parliament has endorsed career diplomat Grigol Mgaloblishvili as prime minister in a step billed by President Mikheil Saakashvili as the start of a reform drive.

Saakashvili has promised wide-ranging democratic reforms, in what analysts say is an attempt to offset domestic criticism over ex-Soviet Georgia's crushing defeat by Russia in a five-day war in August.

The 150-seat parliament, dominated by Saakashvili loyalists, voted 98-11 to elect the 35-year-old Mgaloblishvili, an Oxford-educated diplomat who until this week was Georgia's ambassador to Turkey.

"Restoration of Georgia's territorial integrity and its economic recovery amid the global financial crisis are the two main challenges facing our government," Mgaloblishvili told parliament.

Saakashvili proposed Mgaloblishvili on October 27, saying the government needed new energy after war with Russia and with the world facing financial crisis. He said the replacement of technocrat reformer Lado Gurgenidze was a joint decision.

The pro-Western president, who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution, has been criticized for a perceived autocratic streak that critics say has limited media freedom and compromised the independence of the judiciary.

The opposition has renewed its criticism in the wake of the August conflict, accusing Saakashvili of walking into a war Georgia could not possibly win.

Russia sent tanks and troops into its southern neighbor in early August, saying it was compelled to fight off an assault by Georgian forces to retake the breakaway South Ossetia region from pro-Russian separatists.

The West said Moscow's response was "disproportionate", but has shied away from sanctions.

The war has cost Georgia dearly, slamming the brakes on otherwise racing economic development and ruining its prospects of ever regaining control over South Ossetia and the second breakaway region of Abkhazia -- both now recognized by the Kremlin and secured by thousands of Russian troops.

Only four ministers in Mgaloblishvili's cabinet are different to those of his predecessor and the opposition questioned why Defense Minister David Kezerashvili kept his job after the war.

"The same people were ministers during the August conflict; that's one of the reasons why we cannot support this cabinet," opposition deputy Levan Vepkhvadze said.

Some opposition factions have called a protest for November 7, the first anniversary of a police crackdown against opposition demonstrators that shocked Saakashvili's Western backers.

Thousands of Georgians forced from their homes in August face long-term displacement, with the economy already trying to cope with an estimated 300,000 refugees from wars in the early 1990s when South Ossetia and Abkhazia threw off Tbilisi's rule.

"There is no room for luxury in 2009," Mgaloblishvili said. "With so many people without shelter, all state bodies must tighten their belts."