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Columbia Alumnus, Newly Elected President of Georgia, Speaks at Law School

By Alissa Kaplan Michaels

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili

"Columbia University is my favorite place in America," Mikhail Saakashvili, the newly elected president of the former Soviet republic of Georgia, told an audience at the Law School on Feb. 26. And while that might sound like a politician warming up his audience, he has reason to be genuinely fond of the University: Saakashvili is a Columbia graduate who received his master's in law degree here in 1994. During his first visit to the United States since being elected in January, he spoke to more than 100 people at the Law School, just a day after meeting with President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington.

In November, Saakashvili helped lead the so-called "Rose Revolution," which toppled former President Eduard Shevardnadze amid an atmosphere of political corruption and rigged elections. "We held a peaceful revolution in the eyes of the world," he said.

Saakashvili, who was accompanied by several of his Cabinet members, is just 36 years old, making him the youngest president of a European nation. He earlier had served in Shevardnadze's government as Minister of Justice and noted that, during that time, he had several Columbia law students working for him as interns.

He outlined some of the issues at the top of his political agenda, including the importance of Georgia's ties with the U.S. and his desire to improve his nation's tense relationship with Russia. The tension between the nations partly stems from Russia 's continued control of two military bases in Georgia .

Situated in the Caucasus Mountains, Georgia, a nation of approximately 5 million, is bordered by Chechnya, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the Black Sea. Its location is strategically important to the U.S., one of several countries working to build a pipeline that will carry oil from the Caspian Sea across Georgia into Turkey.

In addition, a small number of U.S. troops have been in Georgia since 2002 conducting anti-terrorist training for the Georgian military, and Georgia has been cooperating in the U.S. "war against terrorism."

During his White House meeting with Bush and Powell, Saakashvili said he discussed such topics as the oil pipeline, battling the government corruption that plagued Georgia's previous administration, and what he termed the United States and Georgia's "shared system of values and beliefs."

"We have a rare window of opportunity" to effect reform in Georgia, Saakashvili said in his talk, sponsored by the Law School and the Harriman Institute, which is devoted to the study of the successor states of the former Soviet Union. He credited Columbia for opening his eyes to "imagining a new future for myself and for my country" and urged students to consider that "one of your options after studying here is becoming a president."

Published: Mar 10, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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