- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

TBILISI, Georgia — Mikhail Saakashvili took office as Georgia’s president yesterday, hoisting the nation’s new flag and urging citizens to help him realize the high hopes raised by the swift and bloodless change that brought him to power.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell attended the inauguration and pledged financial aid to Georgia, a sign of Washington’s interest in stability in the small Caucasus nation — the site of a planned pipeline for Caspian Sea oil and part of a volatile region surrounded by Russia, Turkey and the Middle East.

His hand on Georgia’s constitution, the 36-year-old Mr. Saakashvili took the presidential oath outdoors on a sunny afternoon, standing in front of the parliament building where two months ago, he led street protests that brought down longtime President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Addressing a crowd of thousands, he pledged to unite the country and boost its beleaguered economy. Some waved tiny versions of the new red-on-white, five-cross flag. Others held flowers symbolizing the November overthrow known as the “rose revolution.”

“We must create the Georgia that our ancestors dreamed of, the Georgia that we dream of,” Mr. Saakashvili said.

He raised the European Union flag opposite the new Georgian flag on the parliament steps, signaling his desire for integration with the West.

Mr. Powell, who earlier met with Mr. Saakashvili, pledged that the United States would provide $166 million in assistance to Georgia in the current fiscal year and conveyed an invitation from President Bush for Mr. Saakashvili to visit Washington on Feb. 25.

Mr. Powell said he hopes Georgia will “serve as an example to the rest of the region and the rest of the world of what can be accomplished with a democratic form of government.”

Mr. Saakashvili, who won more than 96 percent of the vote in this month’s election, plunged into the crowd after the ceremony, shaking hands as people cheered.

“We are so happy this day has come at last. This is the beginning of democratic life in Georgia,” said Zhuzhuna Chapidze, a 51-year-old woman who came to the inauguration with her grandson.

Mr. Saakashvili said one of his key tasks is to “uproot corruption” that has kept the economy mired in its post-Soviet morass.

Another important challenge is to bring unity to Georgia, where two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, won de facto independence in bloody wars in the early 1990s.

Pushing his unification efforts, Mr. Saakashvili began the day by flying to the autonomous Black Sea region of Adzharia in a bid to ease tensions between its leaders and the central government.

Mr. Saakashvili and Adzharian leader Aslan Abashidze, a longtime political foe, both expressed hopes for improved relations. But Abashidze supporters scuffled with backers of Mr. Saakashvili.

Adzharia plays host to one of two Russian military bases that remain in Georgia, a major irritant in their relations. Moscow has dragged its feet on their promised pullout, saying it will take at least 10 years.

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