BATUMI, Georgia (Reuters) – Three months after leading Georgia’s bloodless revolution, Mikhail Saakashvili on Sunday saluted the soldiers he had faced down with red roses as he prepared to take his oath as president.
The 36-year-old U.S.-educated lawyer, one of the world’s youngest elected leaders, assumes responsibility for a nation where one in two live in poverty, corruption reaches almost every walk of life and separatism threatens to tear the country apart.
The small Caucasus nation is also at the crossroads of U.S. and Russian interests # the former mindful of a strategic oil pipeline, the latter delaying the closure of two military bases in its ex-Soviet sphere for “security reasons.”
In an effort to maintain momentum after winning 96 percent of the vote in this month’s election, Saakashvili has turned his inauguration ceremony into a weekend of touring the country and preaching reconciliation.
He flew before dawn to the Black Sea port of Batumi, in the autonomous Adzhara region, and reviewed troops with the region’s pro-Moscow leader Aslan Abashidze as a crowd of around 1,000 supporters chanted his nickname: “Misha! Misha!”
“It is important that we show the world that Georgia is united,” he said, as Abashidze, who has resisted control from the capital Tbilisi, looked on. Two other regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have sought to secede.
After a similar review of naval troops in the port of Poti, Saakashvili was due to fly back to Tbilisi for an inauguration ceremony at 3 p.m. (1100 GMT).
Keeping a watchful eye on proceedings will be two men Saakashvili says he would like to be equal friends with # Secretary of State Colin Powell and Russian Foreign Minster Igor Ivanov.
“We are a very small country and we need to survive in a very complicated geopolitical environment. I don’t want to turn this country into a battlefield between different superpowers,” he told foreign reporters late Saturday.
“I am not pro-American or pro-Russian, I am pro-Georgian.”
Nevertheless, Powell, who has promised to urge Russia to close the military bases when he visits Moscow, is to spend much of the day at Saakashvili’s side while no formal talks have been scheduled with Ivanov.
Saakashvili said he was ready to make concessions to Moscow, which has accused Georgia of harboring Chechen guerrillas, but repeated the military bases should go and, in any case, mostly employed ethnic Georgians.
“We’re talking about a few hundred (Russian) soldiers and officers with old fashioned tanks, metal scrap that is useless for Russian security. They have symbolic importance to bolster the self-confidence of some people in Moscow,” he said.
The president-elect will take power on the 76th birthday of the man he toppled, Eduard Shevardnadze. He had been opening parliament when Saakashvili stormed it with protesters brandishing red roses, accusing Shevardnadze of rigging a November poll.