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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Call to Rebuild Ended in a Revolution

TBILISI, Georgia -- Mikheil Saakashvili said he loved living in Washington, pedaling his bicycle from his apartment to George Washington University, where he studied human rights law. And he recalls loving New York, where he worked for a prestigious law firm.

Yet when Georgia's leader invited him back home to help rebuild his shattered country, he packed his bags and his American democratic ideals. He eagerly went to work trying to root out corruption, even showing up at a Cabinet meeting with photos of fancy villas, demanding to know how fellow ministers could afford them on $100-per-month salaries.

Soon, however, Saakashvili said, he discovered that his mentor, President Eduard Shevardnadze, was not willing to back him up. So he quit.

On Sunday night, Saakashvili showed up at another fancy villa, this time the presidential residence, this time backed by 50,000 people in the streets. He delivered a nonnegotiable demand and walked out a few minutes later with Shevardnadze's resignation and the undisputed status as the country's new dominant political leader.

The transformation of a U.S.-educated lawyer to presidential protege to revolutionary leader mirrors in some ways the story of this poverty-stricken country over the last years of Shevardnadze's rule. Devotion to an iconic figure gave way to widespread disillusionment.

"We see that Georgia needs a new way,'' Saakashvili said shortly before Shevardnadze's fall. "His staying in power means losing time.''

It could soon fall to the 35-year-old insurgent to find the path to reform that eluded Shevardnadze, four decades his senior. Flanked by his fellow protest leaders, Saakashvili on Wednesday said he would run for president. He instantly became the prohibitive favorite for the job, in elections called for Jan. 4.

To keep his coalition together, Saakashvili said, he is organizing a power-sharing arrangement in which Nino Burdzhanadze, the parliament speaker now serving as interim president, would remain as head of the legislature, and Zurab Zhvania, the third opposition leader, would join the government, possibly as minister of state.

"The key thing for us is reform and crackdown on corruption and keeping stability,'' Saakashvili said. "That's the most important thing.''

Should he win, it would make him the most Americanized national leader ever seen in the former Soviet Union outside the Baltic states.

Aside from his studies at George Washington, Saakashvili also earned a degree at Columbia Law School and fondly recalls wandering around Capitol Hill and cheering on the New York Knicks. Hanging on his office wall is his Edmund Muskie fellowship certificate and a picture of him with Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy. "I was really raised on American democracy, not only in my studies but much more,'' he said. "JFK is my political idol.''

Tall with a broad frame, boyish smile and chatty manner, Saakashvili also studied in Ukraine, Italy and France before going to the United States. He met his Dutch wife, Sandra Roelofs, while in France. Saakashvili returned to Georgia in 1995 when his friend, Zhvania, then a Shevardnadze ally, came to New York and asked him to return. He was elected to parliament later that year and in 2000 was appointed justice minister before quitting a year later. Last year he founded the National Movement opposition party and was elected head of the city council in Tbilisi.

He likes to defy convention. He adopted a feudal-era Georgian flag as the symbol of his National Movement, then flew it above Tbilisi city hall. After a court ruled it illegal and had it removed, he recalled, "We put it back.''

Saakashvili's flamboyant streak disturbs his critics, who call him a radical, a demagogue or even mentally unbalanced.

His allies scoff at the denigration. "Yes, he is dangerous -- for Shevardnadze and for the people who got used to and were part of the Shevardnadze system,'' said Alexander Lomaia, executive director of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, a group promoting democratic institutions.

Saakashvili rejects the radical label. "They don't realize you can't mobilize people without these kinds of speeches,'' he said. "They just don't like the style. That's the style that mobilizes people here.''