Tuesday, December 17, 2007
For Tycoon’s Campaign, Money Does the Talking
By Nina Akhmeteli: 12/17/07

saqarTvelos prezidentobis eqvsma kandidatma ukve daiwyo saarCevno blici qveynis masStabiT, magram meSvide CrdilSi rCeba. badri patarkaciSvili jer ar dabrunebula saqarTveloSi saarCevno kampaniisTvis. amis mizezad is usafrTxoebasTan dakavSirebul problemebs asaxelebs. mis nacvlad kampanias mis mierve dapirebuli guluxvi socialuri keTldReobis programebi atarebs.

In a televised interview with Georgian Public Broadcasting on December 11, parliamentarian Valeri Gelbakhiani, a representative of Patarkatsishvili’s campaign in Tbilisi, confirmed that the businessman would address social needs if elected president, spending his own personal wealth on the programs. Several media sources even reported that Patarkatsishvili is going to pay for gas and electricity bills if elected.

Parliamentarian Gocha Jojua, who acts as the tycoon’s de facto campaign manager, declined to give details about Patarkatsishvili’s proposals and how they will be funded if the London-based tycoon is elected president.

Yet despite the lack of concrete information from the candidate himself, Central Election Commission Chairman Levan Tarkhnishvili has already warned that such promised programs could be considered an “indirect bribery of the voters.’

Meanwhile, Patarkatsishvili, originally expected in Tbilisi on December 14, has declined to return to Georgia without additional guarantees that he will not be arrested. Although as a presidential candidate Patarkatsishvili enjoys immunity from prosecution, he has been under investigation for an alleged coup attempt. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive]. He stands to lose his immunity if criminal charges are brought. Government officials have declined the demand, saying that the existing amnesty is sufficient.

Given Georgia’s widespread poverty, social welfare issues such as those addressed by the Patarkatsishvili campaign feature prominently in all candidates’ programs. With the campaign slogan “Georgia Without Poverty,” former president Mikheil Saakashvili has offered a broad range of proposals, ranging from 1,000-lari payments to underprivileged families for each newborn child to an increase in minimum pensions to $100 per month within the next two years.

“I want even the most impoverished people to trust me and I will lead you to a safe place,” Saakashvili said in a televised presentation of his campaign program on December 16. The National Movement Party candidate added that “much more is need to be done than has been done before today.”

The proposals are also seen as catering to the traditional working class electorate of Labor Party candidate Shalva Natelashvili, a longtime champion of a welfare state. Natelashvili has pledged to pay for residential gas and electricity fees for three years, compensate citizens for losses incurred by the collapse of the Soviet banking system and to nationalize so-called “illegally privatized” property.

But with billionaire Patarkatsishvili, such promises come with a particular punch. Once one of the largest investors in the country, the tycoon is well known for his charitable activities.

His personal wealth is considered by some voters to be a guarantee that any promises made will be executed, and may by itself prove a key source of competition for Saakashvili, noted economist Gia Khukhashvili.

“The National Movement . . . has run an ultra-left campaign and, in reality, targeted . . . Natelashvili’s electorate,” said Khukhashvili. “But if the population doubts Natelashvili’s promises, in the case of Patarkatsishvili there will be a high level of trust because everyone knows that he has the resources to fulfill them.”

It is still early, though, to gauge how voters will respond at the polls to such overtures. Opinion polls vary, though all put Saakashvili in the lead, followed by National Opposition Council candidate Levan Gachechiladze. The spread between the two ranges from some 40 to several percentage points, depending on the survey, Patarkatsishvili and Natelashvili generally rank in third or fourth place, depending on the poll, with less than 15 percent of the vote.

Temuri Yakobashvili, executive vice president for Tbilisi’s Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, notes that that situation may change if Patarkatishvili becomes actively involved in the race.
“It is difficult to predict who will win the elections as we don’t know what Patarkatsishvili is going to do,” said Yakobashvili. “He can spend so much that Saakashvili won’t be able to win already in the first round or support the other candidate and quit the election.”

Meanwhile, how the treasury will make good on Saakashvili’s promises is a concern for one former National Movement parliamentarian, who claims that the government has already started to work on the proposed programs even though Saakashvili resigned from the presidency in late November.

“The implementation of the program of the National Movement candidate has already started and whoever wins the elections, he faces a very hard task realizing the orders that are currently given by Saakashvili to the government,” commented MP Vladimir Papava, a member of the parliamentary finance and budget committee who resigned from the National Movement in early November.

The National Movement Party has denied the accusations. The government is merely implementing orders given by Saakashvili before his November 25 resignation, said Keti Kochorashvili. No new orders for the government have since been given, she affirmed.

Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze has stated that a new “more socially oriented” draft 2008 budget will be submitted to parliament shortly; in a recent interview with Imedi TV, Finance Minister Nika Gelauri estimated the delivery to occur “in the next few weeks.”

Gurgenidze estimated on December 13 that the government would need to allocate an additional 300 million lari (about $188.7 million) to cover the new social welfare spending. The difference is expected to be provided via defense spending cuts, though the specifics remain unknown.

Editorís Note: Nina Akhmeteli is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.