Georgia's Interim President Backs Protest Leader to Replace Her

Times Staff Writer

This country's new interim leader Wednesday threw her weight behind the presidential candidacy of a U.S.-educated lawyer who led the storming of parliament last weekend, which drove President Eduard A. Shevardnadze from power.

"We made a decision that in the future presidential elections we'll have a single candidate ... and this single candidate will be Mikheil Saakashvili," interim President Nino Burjanadze told a news conference. "We are sure that the presidential vote will result in our victory."

Their respective parties will join in a single bloc to contest upcoming parliamentary elections, she said.

Appearing jointly with Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania, another key figure in the effort to oust Shevardnadze, she said the former opposition leaders needed to remain united to head off the threat of internal turmoil and economic collapse. The decision makes Saakashvili the clear front-runner in the Jan. 4 presidential election.

"I have already heard talk about how easily it has all happened," Saakashvili said of the relatively peaceful rebellion. "I would like to tell you as someone who has seen it all unfold firsthand that nothing has happened easily. Over these weeks there have been several occasions when we were very close to civil war, shooting and death."

A date for new parliamentary elections to partially replace discredited early-November balloting has not been set, but they are expected to be held about the same time as the presidential vote.

On Tuesday, the country's Supreme Court annulled part of the earlier balloting -- the portion in which seats were assigned according to the percentage of votes won by parties -- but allowed the results to stand in a second category of voting in which candidates run in individual districts.

"I am ready for our victory in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections," Saakashvili said. "Of course, there can be no miracles overnight, but resolute steps will be taken to ensure that every citizen of Georgia, every ethnic group in Georgia, has a chance to live a normal life, develop and have a future."

Saakashvili sought to dampen the enormous expectations raised by the opposition's victory, which has led many to believe that more than a decade of economic stagnation and decline will soon end and that the country will move swiftly toward stronger links with Europe.

"I want to tell every family of Georgia that in three weeks, in two months, extraordinary changes won't happen," he said.

Georgia has two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, that fought secessionist wars a decade ago and exercise de facto independence. There are also tensions between the new authorities in Tbilisi and the autonomous region of Adzharia on the Black Sea coast. Saakashvili touched on that issue at a separate news conference.

"Nobody can take away Adzharia," Saakashvili said, adding, "I don't expect any major complications or dramatic complications."

After a new parliament is seated, Burjanadze will be the bloc's candidate for speaker, Saakashvili said. She held the post in the previous parliament, which put her in line to become interim president. The new leaders said they would seek constitutional changes to create the post of prime minister and would nominate Zhvania for that job.

The protests that brought Shevardnadze down were triggered by charges that he in effect stole the Nov. 2 elections through irregularities in the voter lists and a fraudulent ballot count.

Georgian television showed him visiting his former office Wednesday to collect belongings. He declined to comment on the new authorities. "If I express any thoughts it would be bad," he told reporters. "It's not worth me being a troublemaker."

Shevardnadze said he did not call in the military to put down last weekend's protests because he was certain any such effort would end in a bloodbath.

The United States has significant economic and strategic interests in Georgia, partly because a $3-billion pipeline to carry oil from the Caspian Sea region to a Mediterranean port is under construction across its territory. Under Shevardnadze, the country expressed interest in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and Zhvania said Wednesday that the new government would push through reforms to make it "a real candidate."

President Bush called Burjanadze on Wednesday from his ranch near Crawford, Texas, and dispatched a delegation to Georgia to assess the needs of the country.

"The president noted that the transfer of authority in Georgia was handled without resort to violence and that the new leaders moved quickly to call presidential elections in accordance with the Georgian Constitution," said Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman.


Times staff writer Maura Reynolds in Crawford contributed to this report.

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