TBILISI, Georgia -- Mikheil Saakashvili completed a remarkable transformation from protester to president yesterday as the US-trained lawyer won a landslide election to replace Eduard Shevardnadze six weeks after pushing him from power in this destitute former Soviet republic.
The leader of the bloodless "revolution of roses" that overthrew Shevardnadze won more than 85 percent of the vote in the special election, according to an independent exit poll. Even Shevardnadze said he cast a ballot for Saakashvili.
Saakashvili plunged into a crowd of supporters at a concert hall in the center of the capital, Tbilisi, moments after polls closed, shaking hands, sharing hugs, and soaking in the cheers of supporters chanting his nickname, "Misha! Misha!"
He choked up briefly before the crowd of 1,500 in the hall. "I know that I have a very heavy burden to take on, and I'm very emotional right now," he said. "But if I can unify everyone, we can be a prosperous country and prove once more we can live in a normal country in the world."
At 36, Saakashvili inherits a country that is anything but prosperous and normal. The national treasury is empty, the capital is crowded with refugees, wages are months overdue, pensions are 25 cents a day, corruption is pervasive, and several regions remain outside central government control. Situated at a strategic crossroads and transit route for a major new oil pipeline to the West, Georgia has been a key regional ally for the United States even as it resists pressure from Russia to the north.
At a news conference last night, accompanied by his Dutch wife and standing in front of his party banner and a European Union flag, Saakashvili promised to continue Georgia's pro-Western orientation while also seeking better relations with Russia. He pledged to attack corruption and offered conciliatory words for independent regional leaders who have fractured Georgia.
But analysts as well as allies said Saakashvili's first challenge would be making the transition from street demonstrator to statesman.
"Misha is quite clever," the acting president, Nino Burdzhanadze, said in an interview in the State Chancellery office she will turn over to him Jan. 25. "He already understands that it's one thing when you are leader of a revolution and another thing when you are elected president."
Burdzhanadze, who collaborated in the battle against Shevardnadze, said that today she would set new parliamentary elections for March 7. Burdzhanadze, speaker of the old Parliament, said her party would again team up with Saakashvili's National Movement to try to forge a majority coalition. Reports of widespread fraud in the last parliamentary elections Nov. 2 touched off mass protests that led to Shevardnadze's downfall. While renowned in the West for helping end the Cold War as Soviet foreign minister under President Mikhail Gorbachev, Shevardnadze had not reversed his homeland's decline during a decade as president.
Saakashvili, educated at George Washington University and Columbia Law School, served as Shevardnadze's justice minister before quitting in frustration and emerging as his onetime mentor's leading foe. Through force of personality, Saakashvili propelled the protests for weeks until finally, bearing roses, he stormed into Parliament, sending the president fleeing. Shevardnadze stepped down the next day, Nov. 23.
Despite a recent spate of bombings in Tbilisi, yesterday's vote proceeded without violence or the massive irregularities that marred balloting in November, according to foreign diplomats and election observers. "As far as I know, it went quietly and normally," US Ambassador Richard M. Miles said. While there were reports of sporadic problems, they "would not be significant enough to have altered the election," he said.