It was, perhaps, only fitting that the front door of Georgia’s glistening, new, Epcot-Center-style parliament got stuck on the day of the building's October 21 opening.
The Spanish-designed, 133.7-million-lari ($80.7 million) building in the central city of Kutaisi had been billed as a grandiose monument to President Mikheil Saakashvili’s new Georgia, a country where the changes would be as radical as the glass building which housed its legislature.
But now, post-election, the shoe is on the other foot. Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) is in opposition, and the Georgian Dream coalition headed by businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili that triumphed at the October 1 polls is determined to move parliament back to Tbilisi.
The building, still under construction, has long been a point of contention between the UNM and Georgian Dream. One side sees it as all about regional development; the other as all about presidential egoism.
Tina Khidasheli, a parliamentarian from the Republican Party, a Georgian-Dream coalition member, estimated that work on moving parliament out of Kutaisi would begin within the next two months. The change would require a constitutional amendment that would most likely come as a package of proposed amendments, fellow Georgian-Dream MP Davit Onoprishvili told EurasiaNet.org.
But, with 85 of parliament’s 150 seats, the Georgian Dream lacks the 100 votes needed for the changes.
How it will get those 15 extra votes is not clear. While few parliamentarians are believed to be eager to live in or commute to Kutaisi, a city of about 196,800 people two hours by car from Tbilisi, UNM parliamentarians, at this point, are not likely to abandon the project.
Saakashvili’s allies waited to the last minute to take their seats, quietly filing in just moments before the president officially opened the session with a speech about the need for bipartisan cooperation.
The president also called for parliament to remain in Kutaisi, saying its relocation was “neither an easy decision nor a punitive measure” against Tbilisi for its opposition inclinations.
The Georgian Dream MPs, visibly jubilant about the start of parliament, refused to stand when the president entered the hall, and sat stonily through his message.
Ivanishvili, the prime-minister-designate, seated alongside Georgian Orthodox Church Patriarch Ilia II, later echoed Saakashvili’s message about moving forward.
Many Kutaisi residents seem willing to do the same.
Interviewed by EurasiaNet.org in July, many had enthusiastically welcomed parliament’s arrival. Now, with the Georgian Dream (for which Kutaisi voted) calling the shots, those opinions have changed.
“It is good for the interior [of the city] that they built it here…but Tbilisi is the government city, “ commented one opening-day spectator who gave her name as Tamari. “Tbilisians are more active, more willing to protest.”
One retired woman agreed. “This is too much . . . for the city. . . I don’t think this is for Kutaisi.”
Even if the parliament moves back to Tbilisi, Kutaisi will have a few compensation prizes: a new airport, the state auditors’ headquarters and a futuristic House of Justice, a one-stop-shop for government services.
Perhaps with that in mind, some are willing to settle for what they’ve got.
“We like the building,” said Tamari, “but it will be good for us if they make it into something for modern art or something.”