Georgia’s Saakashvili Confident of Presidency Win

TBILISI (Reuters)–Georgia’s new leaders set aside rival ambitions on Wednesday to nominate Mikhail Saakashvili as their sole candidate for January 4 presidential elections–with the US-educated lawyer confidently predicting victory.

The three main figures who brought down veteran leader Eduard Shevardnadze divided up key roles as they strove to spare the former Soviet republic in the heart of the Caucasus further economic hardship and internal turmoil.

Nominated to applause at a parliament news conference–the hugely popular Saakashvili was the driving force in the "people power" revolution that toppled Shevardnadze on Sunday. Saakashvili is supported by Interim President Nino Burdzhanadze and prominent Shevardnadze opponent–Zurab Zhvania.

"I am ready for our victory in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections," Saakashvili declared–a view shared by most commentators given his huge popularity. It remained unclear who would contest the presidential election but Saakashvili appeared confident of a first-round victory–whoever the challenger.

"The revolution continues and will be over only when Georgia becomes happy–successful and fully formed," he said–a reference to separatist tensions that have driven the country for more than a decade.

He later told reporters that experts from the International Monetary Fund–World Bank and the United States would arrive next Tuesday to discuss Georgia’s urgent requiremen’s.

"We are a cash-strapped country that cannot meet elementary needs–cannot pay salaries–cannot pay pensions," said Saakashvili–who speaks at least four languages fluently.

Earlier–Burdzhanadze held fence-mending talks with the IMF country representative. The IMF told the previous administration it would grant no more loans until Georgia dealt with corruption and tax evasion.

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

Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap De Hoop Scheffer–acting as chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)–said it would cost Georgia at least five million euros ($5.88 million) to hold a presidential election and said the country needed international help.

In Washington–US National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said President George W. Bush telephoned Burdzhanadze from his Texas ranch–telling her he supported "Georgia’s program of democratic and free-market reforms."

Washington has previously dispatched instructors to Georgia to train the country’s military in operations like rooting out Chechen rebels hiding in the lawless Pankisi Gorge.

DIVISION OF LABOUR

Commentators say Saakashvili will easily win the January poll. Saakashvili said Burdzhanadze would become assembly speaker once parliamentary elections are partially rerun on the same day.

He also said Zhvania–the final member of the triumvirate that ousted Shevardnadze–would be made interim State Minister–the second most important post in the executive after president.

Interviewed at his home on Tbilisi’s outskirts–75-year-old Shevardnadze advised the youthful team led by Saakashvili–aged 35–to avoid any rash changes.

"I would give him this piece of advice–to behave more calmly–to be fair–and not to allow any chaos in the country…don’t be in a hurry to make any personnel changes."

Saakashvili said the new leadership supported Western plans for a pipeline across Georgia taking oil from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean. It was a "matter of survival" for Georgia.

The new leaders sought Georgia’s further integration with Europe — but "together with Russia." Saakashvili also signaled Georgia would help ensure Chechens could not use the country’s remote Pankisi Gorge to attack Russia–a key Moscow demand.

The poll could well be tense with a boycott by separatist and independent-minded regions. Leaders of three such areas held talks in Moscow on a common stance towards the new authorities.

Burdzhanadze is expected to travel soon to one of the areas–Adzhara–which has said it will take no part in the poll.

Adzharan President Aslan Abashidze–who denounced the campaign that removed Shevardnadze–told reporters in Moscow that his Black Sea region had no plans to separate from Georgia. Borders remained open–he said–for oil shipmen’s.

Two other areas have long defied Tbilisi–Abkhazia–which unilaterally broke away in a bitter separatist war 10 years ago and South Ossetia–proclaimed independent in Soviet times.

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