TBILISI, Georgia – Georgia's new leader pledged not to repeat the mistakes of ousted president Eduard Shevardnadze and to continue his anti-corruption efforts, including targeting the former leader's assets.
"It would be really incredible to do the same bad things, or worse," Mikhail Saakashvili (search) told The Associated Press on Monday, a day after winning an apparent landslide victory in presidential elections and six weeks after Shevardnadze stepped down.
In the dozen years since Georgia became independent with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the land once renowned for stunning scenery and abundant banquets is now known for its poverty, electrical outages, kidnappings and corruption.
It's the latter that Saakashvili has his eyes set on attacking first once he takes office Jan. 25. Shevardnadze and his family are among the targets.
Saakashvili — leader of the wave of November protests that drove out Shevardnadze — said his first efforts will be to push for "drastic anti-corruption legislation."
Graft, including the siphoning off of foreign aid and state assets falling into private hands, has weakened the country to the brink of collapse, and "the richest of them all was the Shevardnadze family," Saakashvili told the AP and Associated Press Television News.
"I never promised Shevardnadze we would not take assets he misappropriated. I promised him his physical security," the 36-year-old, U.S.-educated lawyer said at an interview at the Krtsanisi (search) presidential residence in the steep hills on the edge of the capital, Tbilisi.
Many of Georgia's 5.5 million people live in severe poverty, and even the more fortunate struggle with frequent electricity and water outages, shaky communications and a health care system that Saakashvili called "one of the most barbaric in the world."
"We cannot restore the old social welfare system" of Soviet times, he said, adding that making the economy healthy is the only way to lift Georgians out of misery.
The endemic corruption — Georgia is perceived as one of the world's most corrupt countries, according to the Transparency International (search) watchdog group — has discouraged foreign investors and stifled local entrepreneurship.
Saakashvili acknowledged that those who have benefited from corruption might try to fight back, violently. Georgia has a history of political violence, including two assassination attempts against Shevardnadze.
"We've assumed these risks by running for this office," Saakashvili said in a room where a biography of John F. Kennedy titled "An Unfinished Life" sat atop a table.
With ballots counted from 30 percent of the approximately 3,000 polling places, Saakashvili had 96 percent of the vote against five other candidates, Georgian Central Election Commission chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili said. Election officials said the proportion was unlikely to change substantially when final results are released Wednesday.
International observers said the voting, though marred by sporadic violations, was largely free and fair — a marked contrast to the fraud-infested November parliamentary elections that sparked the anti-Shevardnadze uprising.
The overwhelming support for Saakashvili indicated Georgians' exasperation with the deterioration of their lives and their hopes for the new leadership.
One of Georgia's most promising economic prospects is the construction of an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, crossing through its territory. The project is heavily backed by the United States, and that prompted speculation that Saakashvili's moves to oust Shevardnadze were the result of manipulation by Washington.
"They never helped us as a political force. They kept a safe distance from the opposition," Saakashvili said of the United States.
Saakashvili professes firm Western leanings, which could irritate Georgia's giant neighbor Russia. Relations already are tense over the presence of Russian troops in Georgia and Moscow's cultivation of the leaders of Abkhazia (search) and South Ossetia (search), two Georgian regions that have been de-facto independent since separatist wars in the 1990s.
He insisted that Russia honor an agreement to remove its troops. Although the pullout has been delayed, he will not insist on haste, saying "it's important that [Russia] feel themselves protected."
On Abkhazia, Saakashvili said he will seek peaceful dialogue, but demanded that the ethnic Georgians who fled the province in the war — an estimated 60 percent of Abkhazia's residents — be returned to their homes.
During the November protests, Saakashvili's opponents denounced him as a populist demagogue and even a proto-fascist. But he said he had learned from watching Shevardnadze.
"I will never pretend to be the law in this country," he said.