By MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI, Associated Press
TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia on Sunday inaugurated a new president, 44-year-old philosopher and former university rector Giorgi Margvelashvili, who pledged to strengthen the former Soviet republic's ties with the West and maintain its commitment to NATO.
His inauguration brings to an end the nearly decade-long presidency of Mikhail Saakashvili, who aligned this Black Sea nation with the United States and put it on the path toward integration with the European Union.
The new president has little political experience and is seen as beholden to Bidzina Ivanishvili, a multibillionaire whose coalition drove Saakashvili's party from power in last year's parliamentary election.
Ivanishvili has served as prime minister for the past year, but is now stepping down. His chosen successor, Irakli Gharibashvili, who as interior minister had been in charge of Georgia's police force, is expected to be approved by parliament in the coming days. In the meantime, Ivanishvili will serve as acting prime minister.
Most Georgians expect Ivanishvili to retain influence over political and economic life even after he leaves office, as the new president himself has acknowledged.
"He (Ivanishvili) is a person who has very serious public support," Margvelashvili told The Associated Press during an interview at his home last week. "He is a person whom I respect very seriously and has very serious influence on me because I respect him and I trust him. So, any time he has some kind of position, definitely that will matter for me."
Margvelashvili won last month's presidential election with 62 percent of the vote.
In his inaugural address, he expressed his commitment to democracy, EU integration and the strategic partnership with the U.S. He said Georgians would continue to do their part in the international fight against terrorism, despite the losses sustained in Afghanistan, where Georgia is the largest non-NATO contributor of troops to the NATO-led mission.
Saakashvili, who has been in Brussels for more than a week, refused to attend Sunday's inauguration, citing the criminal prosecution of several of his former ministers and members of his party.
Ivanishvili has said that Saakashvili also is likely to be questioned, in particular over the 2005 death of his first prime minister. Zurab Zhvania's death was attributed to accidental carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a faulty gas heater, but his brother has accused Saakashvili of hiding the truth.
Saakashvili also may face questioning over the 2008 war with Russia, which ended with Russian troops in full control of two breakaway Georgian republics. His opponents accuse him of needlessly antagonizing Russia and giving Moscow a pretext to invade.
The new government has made limited progress in decreasing tensions with Russia, with the restoration of some trade in recent months.
President Barack Obama congratulated Margvelashvili and the people of Georgia for the country's first peaceful transfer of power through democratic elections. Saakashvili became president after leading the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution against a rigged parliamentary election.
Obama praised the roles played by both Saakashvili and Ivanishvili in strengthening Georgia's democratic institutions. "We appreciate what these two leaders have accomplished during their respective tenures and look forward to working with their successors to continue the strong and deep bonds that the United States and Georgia have enjoyed for over 20 years," he said in a statement issued by the White House.
Despite public disillusionment with Saakashvili in recent years, his presidency transformed Georgia by laying the foundation for a democratic state and bringing the economy out of the shadows. Georgia's gross domestic product quadrupled on his watch.
But now Georgians have put their faith in Ivanishvili and those he has chosen to be the country's leaders.
"After today's inauguration, true democracy has arrived in Georgia," Ivanishvili said. "We have a true democratic president and Georgia will have a truly democratic government."