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Last Updated: Monday, 5 January, 2004, 02:19 GMT
Lawyer claims Georgia presidency
Mikhail Saakashvili (left) smiles while listening to the preliminary election results as his wife Sandra Roelofs applauds him in Georgia's capital Tbilisi
Saakashvili says he is ready to deal with Georgia's "mess"
Georgian opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili has claimed victory in Sunday's presidential elections.

He told the BBC his top priorities were to tackle corruption and to make the country investor-friendly.

Mr Saakashvili, 36, led November's popular revolution that ousted former Soviet veteran Eduard Shevardnadze.

The US-educated lawyer faces big challenges - Georgia remains volatile, with widespread crime, power shortages and high unemployment.

Russian interests

He told the BBC his priority would be "to seriously crack down on corruption".

We have a very confident, young group of people. They are Western educated, extremely bright
Mikhail Saakashvili

Mr Saakashvili said he would establish the rule of law and gain respect for the judiciary and the state.

Elite law enforcement agencies would be formed, he added.

"We have a very confident, young group of people. They are Western educated, extremely bright, they speak languages, they know how the modern world functions," Mr Saakashvili said.

"We need to put these people in every level of the government."

Mr Saakashvili also said although the opposition had been helped by the West, the new government would endeavour to accommodate the interests of Russia, which opposed the revolution.

Unity call

Official results are expected on Monday, but unofficial exit polls broadcast by Georgian television suggested Mr Saakashvili had won 85.8% of the vote, while his nearest rivals had only managed 0.4%.

"It is not just my victory, but a victory of the Georgian people. I want us to come together to build a new Georgia," he told the rally.

I hope this election will bring positive results
Omar Kutsiya, Toronto, Canada

More than half the electorate voted in Georgia's presidential election, validating the poll, officials said.

Mr Saakashvili represents Georgia's main opposition blocs, which joined forces to topple President Shevardnadze, after flawed parliamentary elections early in November.

Violence continued in the run-up to the election, but the vote itself was peaceful.

Even Mr Shevardnadze, who still shares a presidential compound with his former protege, endorsed his apparent successor.

Asked whether he had voted for him, the former Georgian leader said: "You guessed my choice."

"He [Saakashvili] is young, he has a lot of energy and is well educated. If he will work, if he wants that, then everything will be all right," Mr Shevardnadze said, before warning that it was time for "more action and less talk".

Western influence

Georgians are also desperate to see an end to the poverty which blights many lives.

Election official at a prison in Tbilisi
Georgians have seen their living standards fall
The new president will inherit a huge foreign debt of $1.7bn.

International interest will focus more on the future of a $2.7bn pipeline project, due to carry oil across Georgia to Western markets.

Russia is keen to keep Georgia in its sphere of influence, and is thought to be wary of the pro-Western Mr Saakashvili.

Observers from former Soviet republics as well as a team from the United Nations monitored Sunday's presidential election.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which said it found "spectacular flaws" in the earlier parliamentary election, also observed the poll.

The election is not being recognised in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But the people of Ajaria voted, even though turnout was said to be low.

The BBC's Damian Grammaticas
"Mikhail Saakashvili is only in his mid-thirties"

Profile: Mikhail Saakashvili
24 Nov 03  |  Europe
Profile: Eduard Shevardnadze
23 Nov 03  |  Europe

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