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Georgia sets presidential election date
( 2003-11-26 15:09) (Agencies)

Georgia's parliament Tuesday called new presidential elections for Jan. 4, setting off a quick countdown to find a replacement for ousted President Eduard Shevardnadze.

The Caucasus nation of 4.9 million people now faces the challenge of mounting a fair and open ballot just weeks after a Nov. 2 parliamentary election widely labeled as fraudulent sparked massive protests, ending with Shevardnadze's resignation Sunday.

In Washington, the State Department said Tuesday a U.S. delegation would head to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, to help prepare for the elections.

Interim president Nino Burdzhanadze, meanwhile, repealed the state of emergency that Shevardnadze had declared after protesters stormed parliament Saturday.

Parliament re-convened Tuesday ! with its pre-Nov. 2 membership ! and Burdzhanadze repeated her calls for unity in a country with a long history of political violence.

"We should stand on each other's side, and not give in to pressure by force, to prevent our country from falling into a critical situation," Burdzhanadze said.

She sniffed a red rose in a vase on the parliament podium placed there as a reminder of the flowers protesters carried in what many have called Georgia's "rose revolution" or "velvet revolution" ! a reference to the movement that toppled communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989.

Lawmakers unanimously agreed to set presidential elections for the first Sunday in January. They were to meet again Wednesday to set a date for new parliamentary elections, likely for Jan. 4 as well.

"Today we are starting a new era," Burdzhanadze told lawmakers.

Mikhail Saakashvili, the fiery figure who led the mass protests, said opposition figures would try to decide later in the day on fielding a single candidate.

"It's very important to keep unity of the opposition, to work out some kind of power-sharing agreement," he said. "The country needs dramatic reforms. It's really in ruins, it's on the edge of total disaster."

He added that "if I decide to run, I'm certainly set to win."

Some warned that Georgia's new government must quickly put the country on the path to ease its widespread poverty and corruption. Otherwise, discontent will erupt again.

"I'm not sure we will see cardinal changes in one year. But we should show people that we are on the road to change," said Yelena Tevduradze, a lawmaker in Burdzhanadze's party.

"People think if Shevardnadze is overthrown that paradise is waiting tomorrow. If they don't get this, they will take to the streets again," said Hamlet Chipashvili, representative in Tbilisi of the independent-minded Adzharia region, and a lawmaker from the Revival party that switched sides to back Shevardnadze before his ouster.

Meanwhile, Georgia's Supreme Court on Tuesday annulled party-list voting in the Nov. 2 elections. It was expected on Wednesday to also cancel results of deputies who won direct mandates.

The international community gave $3.4 million to support the Nov. 2 election in impoverished Georgia, which will have to rely again on outside assistance for the new voting.

"We need help at this moment ! it's a crucial time for Georgia," Gigi Tsereteli, acting parliament speaker, said after the session. "We know that it's a very short period (until the vote), but we should do our best."

Yelena Tevduradze, a lawmaker also in Burdzhanadze's party, said lawyers were already working to correct voter lists ! one of the main sources of contention in the Nov. 2 vote that prevented many from casting ballots.

"People are ready for elections," she said.

Also Tuesday, two Shevardnadze-era ministers resigned: Minister of State Avtandil Dzhorbenadze and Finance Minister Merian Gogiashvili.

Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister who returned to lead his native Georgia in 1992, resigned after a decade of discontent with plunging living standards culminating in the growing protests in recent weeks in the capital Tbilisi.

Georgia's strategic position makes its stability of considerable international concern. It borders both NATO-member Turkey and Russia, and sits astride a planned oil pipeline linking the Caspian and Mediterranean Seas.

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