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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 January, 2004, 22:07 GMT
Georgia pins hopes on new leader
By Natalia Antelava
In Tbilisi, Georgia

Mikhail Saakashvili [left] greets the flag-waving crowd as a bodyguard [right] watches
Saakashvili [left]: "I'd rather die than disappoint my people"

Georgians have closed the last chapter of their revolution by inaugurating their new 36-year-old president, Mikhail Saakashvili.

For Europe's youngest head of state, the inauguration day started early.

Before dawn on Sunday, Mr Saakashvili flew to western Georgia to attend military parades, greet crowds of cheering supporters and talk about his plans to reform and revive Georgia.

Just two months ago, Mr Saakashvili led the so-called Rose Revolution which ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Outspoken, energetic and known to Georgians as Misha, Mr Saakashvili won a landslide victory in presidential elections three weeks ago.

Missing face

On Sunday, at the same place where protesters forced President Shevardnadze out of power, Mr Saakashvili was sworn in as his official successor.

Who cares about Shevardnadze? Lets leave him to the past, lets not talk about unpleasant things... we now have a future to build
Georgian teacher Tengiz Maglakelidze
The show was grand. Soldiers marched by in a military parade and rose petals flew from the sky as he pledged his allegiance to the Georgian constitution.

Georgia's new, post-revolutionary state symbol - a huge red and white, five-crossed flag - flew over the facade of the parliament building.

In front of it, a crowd of foreign guests and dignitaries - among them US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov - watched Georgia's new president take his oath and salute his troops.

One face missing in the crowd was that of Mr Shevardnadze.

The former president was not invited.

Building the future

No-one at Rustaveli Avenue seemed to remember that, as the country celebrated the inauguration of its new and highly popular leader, Mr Shevardnadze also celebrated his birthday - he turned 77 on Sunday.

Saakashvili's optimism and energy are contagious
Student Liana Mamaladze
"Who cares about Shevardnadze?" said 39-year-old teacher Tengiz Maglakelidze.

"Lets leave him to the past, lets not talk about unpleasant things. We now have a future to build.

"This is a man who can change things. Just look at him, look at the energy," he added.

After finishing the oath, Mr Saakashvili quickly ducked into the crowd, ignoring his own security regulations.

His bodyguards followed nervously, trying to keep an eye on the president as he moved quickly through handshakes, hugs, kisses, promises and congratulations.

And then, just as quickly, he was off.

Untested leader?

In the evening, while Mr Saakashvili entertained foreign diplomats, the street party began.

Soldiers carrying the new Georgian national and military flags parade
Many are hoping that Saakashvili can unite their troubled country
"We'll have concerts, and fireworks and the mood is great," said 21-year-old student Liana Mamaladze.

"Saakashvili's optimism and energy are contagious."

But Georgia's new president will face enormous tasks.

Georgia is fractured by unresolved conflicts, state coffers are empty, half of the population lives below the poverty line and corruption is rampant.

Mr Saakashvili wants to turn Georgia into a stable and Western-leaning state.

Opponents, who say Mr Saakashvili is young and untested as a leader, question his ability to turn from a revolutionary into an effective president.

Bringing unity

But Mr Saakashvili has vowed to prove them wrong.

"I'd rather die then disappoint my people," he said on Saturday, speaking to nearly 10,000 people in the ancient cathedral of Gelati in Kutaisi, western Georgia.

To the Georgians, the symbolism of Mr Saakashvili's pre-inauguration trip to Gelati was clear.

Gelati's spacious chamber is home to the tomb of Georgia's ancient king, David the Builder.

Nearly 900 years ago, King David brought unity and prosperity to Georgia.

Many across the impoverished country hope that Mikhail Saakashvili will manage to do the same.


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