TBILISI: Billionaire political novice Bidzina Ivanishvili became Georgia's prime minister on Thursday, saying he wanted the former Soviet republic to join NATO and the European Union while repairing frayed ties with neighbouring Russia.
Ivanishvili and his cabinet won approval from parliament, now dominated by his opposition Georgian Dream coalition after voters relegated President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party to the minority in a bitterly contested Oct. 1 election.
The election ended Saakashvili's nine-year dominance of Georgia, a focus of geopolitical struggles between Russia and the West and a transit country for Caspian Sea oil and gas exports to Europe.
Before the 88-54 confirmation vote, Ivanishvili assured the country he would not abandon U.S. ally Saakashvili's drive to integrate with the West but would also try to rebuild relations with Russia four years after a brief war in August 2008.
"Our team's priority is the aspiration to join the European Union, Euroatlantic orientation and integration into NATO," Ivanishvili told lawmakers meeting in the brand new parliament building in Kutaisi, Georgia's second biggest city.
"We will start a dialogue with Russia using international mechanisms that will help overcome the current crisis step by step," said Ivanishvili, 56, who made much of his estimated $6.4 billion fortune in Russia in the 1990s.
Diplomatic ties with Russia were severed over the five-day war and Moscow angered Georgia, the United States and Europe by swiftly recognising the breakaway Georgian regions at the heart of the conflict - South Ossetia and Abkhazia - as independent states.
Saakashvili, the hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution that swept out Georgia's post-Soviet old guard, must step down next year and reforms due to take effect after a presidential vote in 2013 will weaken the president and strengthen parliament.
Saakashvili had hoped to lead Georgia into NATO. The defence alliance's leaders agreed at a summit in April 2008 that Georgia would one day become a member, but rebuffed U.S. demands to put it on an immediate path to membership.
Although NATO says the door remains open, letting Georgia join would upset Russia. Moscow has reacted positively to the election but made clear it will not discuss the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Ivanishvili, whose Cabinet includes a retired soccer player as Energy Minister and a former envoy to the United Nations as Defence Minister, said he would try to revive commerce with Russia while expanding trade with the West.
Russia banned importation of Georgian wine and mineral water, two main products, as tension mounted before the war.
Internally, Ivanishvili said priorities would include backing for small and medium-sized business and development of agriculture. He promised to relax government control of business, eliminate monopolies and make benefits fairer.
Lawmakers from Saakashvili's United National Movement party criticised a programme presented by Ivanishvili, who entered politics only a year ago.
"There are no concrete terms and dates in this programme, there are no answers to many questions that are interesting to our society," Pavle Kublashvili said.
Saakashvili's quick acceptance that his party had lost the election paved the way for a smooth transition of power in the southern Caucasus country of 4.5 million.
But he and Ivanishvili face months of uneasy cohabitation before the 2013 presidential vote, for which no date has been set.
Georgian Dream has 85 seats in parliament, while the United National Movement has 65.