FOCUS / GEORGIA : PRESIDENTIAL POLL
Mikheil Saakashvili : a young man in a hurry
By SEBASTIAN SMITH
Tbilisi, Georgia _ Throughout his presidency, Mikheil Saakashvili has given the impression of a young man in a hurry and nothing _ not even emergency elections _ it seems can stop him. Preliminary results on Sunday showing Mr Saakashvili, 40, won re-election in a snap poll against six opponents, again confirmed his reputation as a supreme political fighter.
But with opposition candidates bitterly refusing to accept his victory, the question now is whether Mr Saakashvili still has the ability to carry the Georgian people with him.
He was just 36 in 2004 when he became the youngest president in Europe after leading the Rose Revolution to topple president Eduard Shevardnadze.
Mr Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister, was Mr Saakashvili's ex-boss. But the young pretender was ruthless, leading demonstrations against falsified parliamentary elections.
Showing his flair for theatrics, he stormed parliament carrying a single long-stemmed red rose, then dramatically finished the tea abandoned by Mr Shevardnadze in his escape.
At once he became the darling of the West.
Here was a telegenic and charming US-educated lawyer who spoke eloquently _ in five languages _ of the need to transform his bankrupt ex-Soviet republic.
And he was as good as his word.
Appointing a cabinet mostly filled with fellow 30-year-olds, he pursued previously untouchable corruption suspects and attracted investment through a root-and-branch reform of business laws.
He changed the dreary national flag to a more inspiring set of five red crosses on a white background, and gave Moscow notice that Georgia would no longer tolerate being treated like an errant colony.
Many reforms took immediate effect, transforming a country that had known only civil wars, corruption, and poverty since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
The interior ministry fired tens of thousands of policemen overnight and replaced the corrupt force with fewer men dressed in better uniforms, driving better cars, and earning enough to resist bribes.
Mr Saakashvili oversaw the building of roads, prisons and a new international airport for the capital Tbilisi, and he put the country's ramshackle army into the hands of US trainers.
He calls this a ''miraculous transformation.'' As he told journalists on the eve of Saturday's election, ''you are coming to a country that had no street lights three years ago.''
The performance won Mr Saakashvili _ or just ''Misha'' as his supporters have called him _ some powerful friends abroad.
''He loves his country passionately, which explains this youthful exuberance,'' a Western diplomat in Tbilisi said. ''He feels he has a mission to accomplish.''
Washington and European capitals have encouraged Georgia in its bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and build closer ties with the European Union, regardless of the annoyance caused to Russia. uring a 2005 visit to Tbilisi, US President George W Bush hailed Georgia as ''a beacon of democracy''. At first there were only a few naysayers _ more than 96% of voters backed ''Misha'' in his first 2004 election.
Yet the headlong rush to turn the country upside down and his steady accumulation of power began to cause concern, then anger.
Discontent erupted in November when thousands took to the streets for a series of anti-government protests. The government's response _ a police crackdown and the imposition of nine days of emergency rule _ shocked Mr Saakashvili's supporters.
Since then Mr Saakashvili has tried hard to regain his image as a man in touch with the people. He called the early presidential poll and is promising to focus more on bread-and-butter issues if re-elected.
Now, despite almost certain victory in Saturday's vote, Mr Saakashvili is unlikely to see a repeat of his heady early days as president.
Mr Saakashvili's ''weak point'', the Western diplomat said, ''is that he wants to go too fast. In politics, as in love, one must take one's time.'' AFP