Georgia Picks New Poll Date Faces Economic Crisis

TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgia’s new leaders scored an early success on Tuesday by getting a fractious parliament to set a January 4 date for fresh presidential polls–but warned the country faced economic crisis without Western aid.

Deputies voted 155 to zero in favor of the date–turning out in force to answer an appeal by Mikhail Saakashvili–leader of the resistance to ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze–who warned a boycott could destabilize the volatile Caucasus state.

"Each of us carries a huge responsibility–but I hope we will begin a new era of our country’s development," Interim President Nino Burdzhanadze told the session before the vote was taken.

The Supreme Court–meanwhile–cleared the way for a separate new parliamentary election by quashing the results of most of this month’s disputed ballot. A new date for that must be set.

Fixing a new date for a presidential contest is a key step in ensuring stability in Georgia after three weeks of protests culminated in Shevardnadze’s resignation on Sunday.

Earlier–Georgia’s new leaders claimed a fresh scalp from among Shevardnadze’s old allies — forcing the resignation of State Minister Avtandil Dzhorbenadze.

His departure had been on the cards since Burdzhanadze denounced him for Georgia’s economic plight and for staging the disputed poll that set off protests and Shevardnadze’s demise.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov–who helped mediate an end to the three-week standoff–said it was clear in Georgia and other ex-Soviet states there had been "attempts to interfere into internal affairs by certain countries and separate states."

"Unfortunately–this is no exception. We face similar facts also in other cases," he said in Ukraine–without elaborating.

Parliament’s session took place as a separatist leader said he would meet the heads of two other like-minded regions of Georgia to form a common stance after Shevardnadze’s downfall.

The gathering in the Russian capital of officials from Abkhazia–South Ossetia–and Adzhara was a reminder for Georgia’s new leaders of separatist passions pent up in the country.

ECONOMIC COLLAPSE

Burdzhanadze warned Georgia stood on the brink of economic collapse after the bloodless ousting of Shevardnadze and said drastic steps had to be taken to reverse the situation.

She told officials in a televised broadcast the legacy of decline from his administration was "even worse than we thought."

"The situation is very difficult. Yesterday’s data shows that we are facing economic collapse," she said.

She called for radical measures–but offered few details beyond urging state enterprises to work at full capacity. Her warning clearly prefaced fresh appeals to the West to help the ex-Soviet country where the average monthly income is about $40.

"We have to ask our foreign colleagues to help us in this situation," she said.

The 11-year rule of Shevardnadze–praised in the West as Soviet foreign minister for helping end the Cold War–was marked by rising poverty–chronic corruption–and separatist rebellions.

Georgia’s new leaders–including Saakashvili–a US-educated lawyer tipped as a possible future president–face an uphill battle to right the country. The West is monitoring the situation closely because of plans to build an oil pipeline across Georgia from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean Sea.

The International Monetary Fund had refused to make loans to Georgia under a poverty reduction program until Shevardnadze’s government dealt with mass corruption and tax evasion.

Sources close to the Paris Club of state creditors said Georgia would have to mend fences with the IMF before it has any chance of debt relief. It has $1.78 billion in foreign debt including some $600 million to the Paris Club.

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