Leader of Georgia's 'rose revolution' claims landslide

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The Independent Online

Mikhail Saakashvili, the former New York lawyer turned leader of Georgia's "rose revolution", appeared to be on course last night for a landslide victory in the country's presidential elections.

An exit poll indicated that Mr Saakashvili, who was responsible for organising the mass demonstrations that forced theformer president, Eduard Shevardnadze, from power in November, had won 85.8 per cent of the vote. Despite no official results being available, Mr Saakashvili declared himself the winner.

"I want to thank the whole nation, all of my supporters. You, my people, have won the election," he said.

Voters emerging from polling stations yesterday said they hoped the 36-year-old could reverse the 11 years of corruption and mass poverty they had experienced under Mr Shevardnadze. Many also expressed hope that "Misha", as Mr Saakashvili is known, will bring peace and stability to a population of 4.5 million beset by civil war, ethnic separatism and organised crime since the tiny Caucasus republic split from the USSR in 1991. "Our country needed change desperately, and Misha is the only one who is up to the job," said Lasha Bugadze, a writer. "He has inspired the people to hope again, after years of despair ... this is a huge achievement."

Almost no one would admit that they voted for one of Mr Saakashvili's five opponents, most of whom are virtual unknowns. "There was only one serious candidate in this election," said Per Gahrton, a Swedish member of the European Parliament who was acting as an official observer. "Saakashvili stands out from the others in every way." Even Mr Shevardnadze, who voted near his Tbilisi home yesterday, claimed to have cast his ballot for Mr Saakashvili. "[He] is young, he has a lot of energy and is well educated. He has the skill of communicating with people," he said.

Georgians lined up patiently at polling stations to have their names checked against hastily revised lists and their fingers sprayed with invisible ink as a precaution against double voting. Ballot papers were dropped into transparent boxes in an attempt to counter the problems that marred November's parliamentary elections and eventually forced Mr Shevardnadze to quit.

"I hope we will finally have some happiness in our lives," said Tamar Mekokishvili, an elderly widow who said she could barely survive on her £4 monthly pension. "All my hopes are with Misha."

Since the rose revolution, the new government, headed by the parliamentary speaker Nino Burdjanadze, an ally of Mr Saakashvili, has worked to clean up unreliable voter lists and replace the local electoral commissions that were seen as corrupt and biased. The US and EU governments contributed millions of euros to help Georgia stage the polls, and observers said they were generally satisfied that the process was fair. "It's a big contrast from the November elections, which were carried out in a very tense atmosphere that made falsification easy," said Mr Gahrton. "It's not perfect, but the situation now is much better."

Mr Saakashvili studied in the US and worked at a prestigious New York law firm before returning to his native Georgia in 1995. A former protege of Mr Shevardnadze, he quit his post as justice minister two years ago, complaining that the government was paralysed by incompetence and corruption. He quickly became the leader of Georgia's opposition and last year helped create the National Movement, the party which the courts said legally won November's elections. Among his assets are youthful, telegenic good looks, a fiery speaking style, fluent command of English, French and Russian, and an attractive Dutch wife, Sandra, who has endeared herself to Georgians by learning their language.

But Mr Saakashvili's extravagant campaign pledges, including promises to double wages and pensions, jail corrupt officials and force Georgia's super-rich to disclose the sources of their wealth, look set to ensure a testing start for his premiership.He has also worried some observers with his plan to force two separatist regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, to bow to Tbilisi's rule.

Last week Mr Saakashvili visited South Ossetia and warned its leaders that this would be the last Georgian election the breakaway ethnic territory would be able to abstain from. "This problem [separatism] will be brought under control," he said.

But, at least when speaking in his perfect English to foreign journalists, Mr Saakashvili denies any extremist plans. "Georgia is a European country," he said. "We have core European values and historic aspirations to join Nato and the European Union, and I think this will happen soon."