Probable Winner in Georgia Saakashvili Likely to Face Problems

TBILISI (Reuters)–US-educated lawyer Mikhail Saakashvili seems certain to crown a successful drive to topple Eduard Shevardnadze with victory in Georgian presidential polls on Sunday but faces huge problems in reviving the volatile ex-Soviet state.

Saakashvili–36–a former justice minister who quit in protest over government corruption–led a "people’s revolution” that toppled president Shevardnadze–his former mentor and Soviet foreign minister–in November.

Three lawyers–a former regional governor and the head of an organization for the disabled will run against him. But they are given little chance of prevailing in a ballot focusing on issues of high-level corruption–poverty and the separatism that has plagued Georgia since independence over 10 years ago.

"These elections are absolutely predictable. No one has doubts about Mikhail Saakashvili’s victory,” Archil Gegeshidze–an analyst at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies–told Reuters.

Though the outcome appears certain–the election will all the same be closely watched in the West and in Russia and Georgia’s other neighbors because of a $2.7 billion pipeline due to take Caspian oil across its territory to Western markets. A grenade attack on December 29 on the headquarters of an independent TV station that played a part in Shevardnadze’s downfall underscores the ever-present threat of violence.

Allegations of vote-rigging in a parliamentary election ignited the popular anger that drove out Shevardnadze and international observers will monitor Sunday’s poll.

Georgia’s breakaway Black Sea province of Abkhazia and its wayward South Ossetia region are both cold-shouldering the poll. But the independent-minded Adjaria province–run by maverick leader Aslan Abashidze–has said it will take part.

Central Election Commission chief Zurab Chiaberashvili said Georgia needed to ensure a fair poll since election fraud was a sensitive issue–though some analysts say a low turnout following New Year holidays may cast a shadow over proceedings.

"There is a tension in society. It will help to mobilize people to go to the polling stations,” said analyst Gia Nodia.

PROBLEMS AHEAD

An important goal for Saakashvili will be retaining the support of acting president Nino Burdzhanadze and State Minister Zurab Zhvania–two other players in Georgia’s revolution.

"Some staff issues could cause tension between him (Saakashvili) and Burdzhanadze and Zhvania–who have already appointed their own people to some posts,” Nodia said.

The future president will need to overhaul the economy which is weighed down by $1.7 billion foreign debt. Half of Georgia’s 4.5 million people live on less than $4.15 a day and state finances are bled white by a shadow economy accounting for 60-70 percent of activity.

Raising revenue quickly will require difficult and unpopular decisions by the new government in its 2004 budget–analysts say.

Another tough choice ahead for Saakashvili–who has the distinction of sharing the same birthday as the Georgia-born–Soviet dictator Josef Stalin–December 21–will be how to crack down on corrupt tax and excise officials.

They are estimated to deprive state coffers of some $200 million a year in fuel excise duty alone–say experts. That is about 20 percent of annual revenue.

Keeping a balance in foreign policy between the West and Russia–Georgia’s big northern neighbor with whom it has see-sawing relations–is another task ahead.

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