Page last updated at 13:32 GMT, Sunday, 25 January 2004

Profile: Mikheil Saakashvili

Mikhail Saakashvili
Saakashvili: People's hero or demagogue?
Georgia's new president - who led protests that swept Eduard Shevardnadze from office - has vowed to turn his poverty-stricken country into a prosperous western-leaning state.

Mikheil Saakashvili, 36, has built himself the reputation of a crusader against corruption and an enemy of poverty.

Opinion polls suggest he has been the country's most popular politician for the last two years, and he appeared to have achieved a landslide victory in the 4 January election.

But critics describe him as a demagogue and a populist with a strong lust for power.

Mr Saakashvili is proud of his own achievements, which he believes qualify him to deal with his country's problems.

"We need to deal with that mess as soon as possible," he told French news agency AFP.

"I am ready to deal with that mess."

Groomed for power

He studied in Ukraine and France, before attending Columbia University law school in the United States. He was later hired by a New York-based law firm.

This explains why - in addition to his native Georgian - the new president speaks fluent English, French, Ukrainian and Russian.

Mr Saakashvili - whose supporters affectionately call him Misha - has a young son and a Dutch wife, Sandra.

Woman with poster of Saakashvili
Saakashvili has ridden a wave of popular discontent

He always intended to return to Georgia, and in October 2000 was appointed justice minister by the then president Eduard Shevardnadze.

Mr Shevardnadze began grooming the young lawyer for power, but Mr Saakashvili found it hard to stomach what he saw as corruption and cronyism in Georgia's leadership.

He caused uproar at a cabinet meeting by producing documents which he said showed fellow ministers had acquired expensive villas from the proceeds of crooked deals.

By 2002 he had resigned, saying he considered it immoral to remain a member of the government.

He formed an opposition party, the National Movement, and was elected head of the city council of the capital Tbilisi - home to one-third of Georgia's residents.

From this power base, he attempted to establish himself as a man of action, impressing many by fixing leaky roofs and broken lifts.


He harnessed popular discontent and saw in November's parliamentary elections an opportunity to make his mark nationally.

When the elections became tainted by allegations of fraud, he organised daily protests against the government, building up a head of steam which led eventually to the storming of parliament and Mr Shevardnadze's resignation.

But while Mr Saakashvili has vigorously pursued his goal of radical change and a "velvet revolution", he appears to retain an affection for his former mentor.

Speaking of a recent meeting with Mr Shevardnadze, he said: "I told him, with great pain... Look Mr President, you had a great chance to become the founding father of a new Georgian nation, and you missed it."

And when the end finally came, he described Mr Shevardnadze's resignation as a "courageous act". "History will judge him kindly," he said as the jubilant crowds celebrated.

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President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili
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