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Profile: Mikheil Saakashvili

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili
Mikheil Saakashvili has pursued pro-Western, liberalising policies

Mikheil Saakashvili wants Georgia to ally itself firmly with the West and become a Nato member - much to Russia's displeasure.

Since his election as Georgian president in January 2004 his administration has been plagued by deteriorating relations with Russia, which erupted into open war in August 2008 over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Mr Saakashvili says Russia is pursuing a Cold War-era policy of domination in the Caucasus, undermining Georgian democracy. He likened Russian "aggression" in South Ossetia to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

For its part, Russia accuses Mr Saakashvili's forces of "genocide" by attacking civilians in South Ossetia and insists its troops are only there to protect Russian citizens. Many South Ossetians now have Russian passports.

Mr Saakashvili, 40, was an icon of the 2003 "Rose Revolution" - the name given to the largely peaceful uprising against his predecessor, former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze.

The urbane, US-educated lawyer says he is trying to remodel Georgia as a prosperous Western-style democracy.

But, he says, his crusade has forced him to confront the modern vestiges of Soviet domination.

Disputed territories

He promised Georgian voters that he would strive to restore Georgia's control over South Ossetia and another breakaway territory - Abkhazia. That put him on a collision course with Russia, as the separatist rebels in those regions look to Moscow for support.

Georgian artillery firing at South Ossetian separatists, 8 Aug 08
Georgia said it was provoked into attacking South Ossetian rebels

In a sign of friendship towards the US, he sent a contingent of troops to serve with the US-led coalition in Iraq.

The development of Caspian energy resources has also turned Georgia into a key transit point for oil and gas exports from Azerbaijan to the West.

Mr Saakashvili's landslide victory in elections held after the Rose Revolution enabled him to steer Georgia towards the West.

He resigned as president in November 2007 in order to run for office again after a series of anti-government demonstrations forced him to call a snap election for 5 January 2008.

He went on to win the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008 convincingly, though critics - including some foreign monitors - questioned the fairness of those polls.

His opponents say he now exhibits the very authoritarianism he once challenged.

They cite as evidence his crackdown on street protests in 2007, when the government used police to disperse protesters and declared a temporary state of emergency.

Mr Saakashvili has regularly accused Russia of interfering in Georgian affairs. Relations between Moscow and Tbilisi have soured because of rows over the price of gas, which Georgia imports from Russia.

Georgia map

At the height of the tensions in 2006 Russia expelled large numbers of Georgians living on its territory and imposed a blockade on Georgian exports.

Mr Saakashvili believes he must rid his country of a dependent mentality fostered by decades of communism.

"I keep telling people that this is not a process like some silver-backed gorilla leading them to new pastures," he told the US newspaper The Wall Street Journal in 2007. "They must do it themselves, and they are."

The newspaper described his workaholic routine and style of leadership as a "permanent political campaign".

Groomed for power

Mr Saakashvili 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 - he speaks fluent English, French, Ukrainian and Russian.

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

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.

Peaceful transition

He harnessed popular discontent and saw in November 2003'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 vigorously pursued his goal of radical change, he also tried to avoid alienating his former mentor's supporters.

After a 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".



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