Fri, Nov 28, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Firebrand runs for presidency

UNITED BLOC Mikhail Saakashvili will run for the presidency early next year after helping oust Eduard Shevardnadze, but the deposed president only had kind words for him

AP , TBILISI

Flanked by fellow opposition leaders Mikhail Saakashvili, left, and Zurab Zhvaniya, right, Georgia's interim president Nino Burdzhanadze speaks to the media in Tbilisi on Wednesday.

PHOTO: AP

Georgia's newly united opposition on Wednesday named Mikhail Saakashvili, the firebrand who galvanized weeks of protests that forced Eduard Shevardnadze to step down, as its candidate to replace him.

"The era of single-person rule has ended in Georgia," the US-educated Saakashvili, 35, said after launching his candidacy in the Jan. 4 elections during a news conference at parliament, the flashpoint of the uprising.

"We will head into the presidential and parliamentary elections as a united bloc," said interim President Nino Burdzhanadze, who will stand atop the party's list for parliament elections that haven't yet been scheduled. The two leaders were joined by another leader of the opposition troika, Zurab Zhvaniya.

In an interview on Wednesday, three days after he stepped down, Shevardnadze spoke kindly about Saakashvili, despite disagreeing with the means with which his followers took power -- bursting into parliament on Saturday to send him fleeing from the building.

"I cannot say anything bad about him," Shevardnadze told reporters at his hilltop residence in Tbilisi.

"I want to advise him to avoid chaos ... Chaos already happened in the country and he can change the situation," he said.

Saakashvili on Wednesday warned of lingering threats to stability and the possibility that elements in the military -- which stood aside during the uprising -- might take advantage of uncertain times to stage a coup.

"Some part of the officers speak of the possibility of an armed coup and creation of a junta," Saakashvili told independent Rustavi-2 TV.

"I advise them not only not to do that, but not even to think about it. If it happens we will strongly repulse them."

Saakashvili is widely seen as the favorite to win the vote, scheduled just 42 days after Shevardnadze's departure amid a massive demonstration sparked by complaints of fraud in parliamentary elections.

Saakashvili pledged that the new vote would be clean, and he welcomed other candidates to run.

The opposition will work "so that every citizen of Georgia has an absolute guarantee that he doesn't lose his vote," he said, promising to follow the free-and-fair voting guidelines of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and US recommendations that were given to Georgian authorities in the summer by former Secretary of State James Baker.

The deadline for other candidates to enter the race wasn't clear. A former provincial representative of Shevardnadze, Temur Shashiashvili, has declared his candidacy. Dzhumber Patiashvili, who was Shevardnadze's main challenger in two previous elections, said Wednesday he would support Saakashvili, the news agency Interfax reported.

Aslan Abashidze, leader of the Revival Party that opposed calls for Shevardnadze's resignation, also said on Wednesday that he would not seek the presidency.

Besides potential outside rivals for the presidency, Saakashvili and his new opposition allies also face the challenge of keeping their united bloc together and forming a common platform between parties, which in the past have differed on a range of issues.

US President George W. Bush called Burdzhanadze on Wednesday and reiterated US support for Georgia's sovereignty, indepen-dence and territorial integrity, said US National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.

However, it was Georgia's ties with neighboring Russia that Saakashvili emphasized in his first stump speech kicking off his campaign.

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