Georgia's Saakashvili resigns ahead of election

Mikhail Saakashvili has stepped down as Georgia's President in the run-up to early elections on 5 January. The country's leader of four years says he's confident of winning re-election. In Tbilisi, thousands of activists are taking part in a rally for op

New protests in Tbilisi
Early poll
Rose revolution hero
Strong links with the West
Controversial presidency

On Sunday, an emergency session of parliament approved Mikhail Saakashvili's resignation, freeing him to start campaigning for early elections.

A resolution setting polling day for January 5 was passed.

Parliamentary Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze has temporarily taken over presidential duties in Georgia.

Eight candidates have announced they'll stand against Saakashvili. If no candidate wins 50 per cent plus one vote in the first round, there'll be a run-off election.  

Saakashvili is widely tipped to pass the winning line in the first round.

New protests in Tbilisi

Meanwhile, opposition candidates are starting their race for the presidency. About 3,000 people have turned up for a rally in the capital, Tbilisi.

One of the main tasks of the demonstration is to protest against the use of force in dispersing opposition supporters in Tbilisi more than two weeks ago.

The opposition is also demanding that the independent TV and radio company Imedi be able to resume broadcasting.  

Tbilisi authorities sanctioned the rally a week ago.

Early poll

Originally, the vote was scheduled for next autumn. It was brought forward after police violently broke up political demonstrations in the capital Tbilisi earlier this month.

A state of emergency followed and independent news reports were taken off air.

Parliament Speaker Burdzhanadze will temporarily take over has head of state until the election. She was also interim President in 2003.

Rose revolution hero

Mikhail Saakashvili came to the world's attention during the non-violent Rose revolution in November 2003. He and his supporters forced the then Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze to step down.

Observers said the parliamentary election that followed was rigged. The party of Eduard Shevarnadze was declared the winner, but Mikhail Saakashvili disputed the result.

The opposition urged Georgians to protest with roses in their hands. The protesters broke into the parliament, interrupting the president's speech. He was forced to flee the building.

The next day Shevardnadze announced his resignation.

Two months later Mikhail Saakashvili was elected president, winning 95 per cent of the vote.

Strong links with the West

Saakashvili was born in 1967 in Tbilisi. He left school with a gold medal and graduated from the Institute of International Relations in Ukraine’s capital Kiev.

From early on his career and life have been linked with the United States and Europe.

In the early 1990s Saakashvili was awarded a grant from the U.S. Congress to study in America. He took law degrees at Columbia University in New York and George Washington University.

In the mid-1990s he worked for a New York law firm specialising in energy projects in developing and CIS countries.

He entered politics in 1995 on the advice of Zurab Zhvania, an old friend from Georgia. At the time he was recruiting young and talented people to engage in politics on behalf of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Zhvania, who was prime minister under Saakashvili, died in 2005 in suspicious circumstances. Officials claimed carbon monoxide poisoning killed him.

Under Shevardnadze, Saakashvili was elected to the Georgian parliament. He chaired a committee for constitutional and law issues before becoming Georgia’s Minister of Justice.

Controversial presidency

During his presidency, Saakashvili pursued a U.S.-oriented foreign policy with the goal of joining NATO and the European Union.

He promised to restore Georgia's integrity and settle conflicts with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. However, his term was marred by numerous clashes between Georgian troops and Russian peacekeepers stationed there.

An ardent critic of Russia, he managed to achieve the withdrawal of Russian military bases from Georgia ahead of schedule.

However, from the glory days of the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili's popularity steadily waned. His reputation suffered when he failed to improve social and economic conditions.

Early this autumn Irakly Okruashvuili, who was Defence Minister under Saakashvili, was arrested when he accused his former ally of corruption.

Thousands took to the streets demanding an early parliamentary election and Mikhail Saakashvili’s resignation.

On November 7, Georgain riot police dispersed peaceful demonstrators with tear gas, batons, water canons and rubber bullets.

Following the clashes, Saakashvili imposed a state of emergency, banning protests and independent news reports.

He quickly announced plans to hold early presidential elections. The state of emergency was lifted following pressure from the international community.