On November 22, 2003, Mikheil Saakashvili, wielding the prickly red flower that would come to represent the "Rose Revolution" of the Republic of Georgia, stormed the parliament building calling for the resignation of President Eduard Shevardnadze. He was joined by hundreds of thousands of supporters of his National Movement opposition party. Mr. Shevardnadze stepped down from office a day later, ending a 12-year term critics said had become mired in corruption. On January 4, Mr. Saakashvili became the youngest president in Europe in a landslide that captured more than 85 percent of the vote.
While detractors of the 36-year-old Mr. Saakashvili have suggested his presidency might be impaired by inexperience and his youth, they may be underestimating a president audacious enough to raise the EU flag over the Georgian Parliament - ahead of actual admission to the union. It is clear that the president has designs to raise the stature of his nation particularly in the eyes of his European neighbors to the west.
Mr. Saakashvili studied law at Kiev University and the International Institute of Human Rights in Strasbourg before earning his LL.M. from the Law School. After a year as an intern for New York City-based Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler, Mr. Saakashvili's superior intellect and energy won him a job offer with the firm. He declined, choosing instead to return to Georgia to take up a political career. By 2000, President Shevardnadze had appointed him justice minister, but the young Columbia graduate resigned two years later in a remonstration of what he perceived to be widespread corruption and cronyism among the Georgian leadership. Mr. Saakashvili was soon mounting daily protests - drawing tens of thousands of discontented supporters - against parliamentary elections marred by fraudulent practices.
The task of rebuilding a country plagued by two wars with neighboring regions and a limping economy during his first year in office has been anything but easy. In March, tensions with Adzharian Autonomous Republic, an area traditionally controlled by Georgia, reached a point of brinkmanship when the Georgian government accused the republic of hoarding customs revenues and creating paramilitary groups loyal only to Aslan Abashidze, the republic's leader. Mr. Saakashvili put his military on high alert and imposed economic sanctions, setting up a tense armed standoff. In July, Mr. Abashidze was removed from power and a document was forged between Russia and Georgia detailing the distribution of constitutional powers between Georgia's central authorities and the Adzharian Autonomous Republic. Mr. Saakashvili is also struggling with another republic, South Ossetia, which has the support of Russia.
At the same time, Mr. Saakashvili has been cultivating relations with the West. In February, he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell. The visit also included a detour to New York, where he spoke before students during the Georgian "Rose Revolution" Colloquium organized by SIPA's Harriman Institute and the Law School.