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Thursday, November 27, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Georgia's Saakashvili backs oil-pipeline plan

TBILISI, Georgia — The U.S.-educated lawyer who led the storming of Georgia's parliament and the overthrow of President Eduard Shevardnadze over the weekend yesterday backed development of a key oil pipeline that will link the energy riches of the landlocked Caspian Sea with the West, bypassing Russia and the crowded Turkish Bosphorus strait.

"All strategic contracts in Georgia, especially the contract for the Caspian pipeline, are a matter of survival for the Georgian state," said Mikhail Saakashvili, who yesterday was endorsed by the country's interim President Nino Burjanadze in the upcoming presidential election. The decision makes Saakashvili the clear front-runner in the Jan. 4 presidential election.

The protests that brought Shevardnadze down were triggered by charges that, in effect, he stole the Nov. 2 elections through irregularities in the voter lists and a fraudulent ballot count.

Georgian TV showed Shevardnadze visiting his former office yesterday to collect belongings.

Oil companies BP and Statoil said the ouster of Shevardnadze did not represent any threat to their plans to ferry Azerbaijan's huge oil and gas reserves to Turkey via oil and gas pipelines through Georgia, known as Baku-Ceyhan and Baku-Erzurum.

Saakashvili sought to dampen the enormous expectations raised by the former opposition's victory, which have led many to believe that more than a decade of economic stagnation and decline would soon end and the country would move swiftly toward greater prosperity and stronger political and economic links with Europe.

"I want to tell every family of Georgia that in three weeks, in two months, extraordinary changes won't happen," he said.

Georgia has two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which fought secessionist wars a decade ago and exercise de facto independence. There are also severe tensions between the new authorities in Tbilisi and the autonomous Black Sea coast region of Adzharia.

Aslan Abashidze, leader of Adzharia, said after meetings with Russian government patrons he would defy any orders by the four-day-old interim government in the capital.

Shevardnadze, who ruled Georgia for 12 years after playing an instrumental role in the final days of the Soviet bloc, speculated that forces other than the protesters were involved in his ouster.

He noted that the U.S. ambassador to Georgia, Richard Miles, was posted in Yugoslavia before the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic, and suggested the ambassador might have encouraged Georgia's opposition.

In Washington, a senior administration official denied any U.S. conspiracy to depose Shevardnadze.

Should Saakashvili win, it would make him the most Americanized national leader ever seen in the former Soviet Union outside the Baltic states. Aside from his studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., Saakashvili also earned a degree at Columbia Law School.

With no money in the budget and $1.8 billion in foreign debt, Saakashvili acknowledged that the interim government cannot pay salaries or pensions until after the elections.

Washington committed $2.4 million to help conduct Georgia's Nov. 2 election. It was part of a 10-year investment of $1.3 billion aimed at helping Georgia create a civil society.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Bush administration was putting together an "inter-agency mission" to go to Georgia next week to offer help with elections and other areas of cooperation.

Compiled from Reuters, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor reports.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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