Not me, declared Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava on March 28, thereby making even smaller the potential cast of characters for this October's Georgian presidential election.
Thirty-seven-year-old Ugulava has long been rumored as likely to take the torch from his mentor, President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now using his lame-duck year to keep his United National Movement afloat in its revived role as opposition force.
“I don’t plan to run. Nor is the party considering my candidacy,” said Ugulava, whose mayoral term expires in 2014. “It is a privilege and a challenge to hold this position and, therefore, I have no intention of leaving [the office of mayor], tempting as the other opportunities out there may be.”
The highfalutin' aside, Mr. Mayor may be making a pragmatic move here. Ugulava is currently awaiting trial on criminal charges of alleged embezzlement/misappropriation of budgetary funds and money laundering -- a tricky detail to explain to voters, despite his denials of guilt.
Even without that, though, the chances for a UNM candidate’s success are not a given these days. Though the coalition may have lost some of its initial, crowd-pleasing luster, Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream juggernaut is still seen as sitting in the catbird seat.
Plus, as Georgia slowly metamorphoses into a parliamentary republic, the presidential position is just not as enticing as it used to be.
Georgia just got itself a new prime minister and a new TV series. The prime minister is billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (by a vote of 88 to 54) and the show is the televised sessions of parliament, featuring President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement as the outspoken, hopping-mad opposition.
Crossing the genres between sitcom and drama, the series is set in a 133.7-million-lari ($80.7 million) spaceship of a parliament building -- complete with leaking glass roof.
The first episode aired yesterday as the minority National Movement grilled Ivanishvili on his suitability for the prime minister's job.
But if the launch prompted some viewers to suggest that television stations should add laugh tracks, today, in episode two, the show became more substantial and serious, with both the ministerial candidates and the lawmakers getting down to the brass tacks of the new Georgian government’s program.
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.
Kakha Kaladze, charged with keeping Georgia's lights on
Retired soccer stars have taken up all kinds of unlikely jobs, but AC Milan onetime defender Kakha Kaladze takes the prize for the most unpredictable career change. The former captain of Georgia's national soccer team, and a little bit of a national sex symbol, Kaladze has been nominated to become the Georgian minister of energy and natural resources.
The wiry, white-haired Dumbadze is known for letting it rip, let the consequences be what they may.
He once exploded on television that a rival was not fit to serve Georgia because he was not ethnically Georgian. He also fiercely resisted the construction of a new mosque in his Batumi constituency, and acquired a reputation for robust Turkophobia. (He later apologized for the remarks in question.)
"If you only knew how many stupid things I’ve done in my life . . .If you think I am smart, you're wrong,” he told a gaggle of voters during the campaign.. “We see that,” one man responded with a cautious smile.
“For 20 years, I went around begging people to vote for me,” Dumbadze continued. “But . . .there was nothing, not a single vote for me. Even my mother wouldn't vote for me . . ."
“Once, just once, let me near the government,” he implored.
We checked everywhere -- at the ministry, at the nightclubs, under the bed. The man just vanished into thin air.
Since Georgia's ruling United National Movement lost the October 1 parliamentary elections, speculations have been raging about key officials supposedly burning work documents and hightailing it out of the country. Most of these reports have proven apocryphal, except that 40-year-old Justice Minister Zurab Adeishvili, indeed, seems to have gone missing.
With billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition preparing to take over most government offices from the United National Movement, Georgian ministers are now busy clearing their desks, and putting away piles of papers, framed quotes of libertarian thinkers, photos of wives and cats.
In a surprisingly cooperative move, the outgoing ministers also are reportedly giving office tours to the incoming ministers to fill them in on ongoing projects, introduce them to the staff and perhaps share a few hints about nearby lunch spots.
Some of the Georgian Dream’s ministerial candidates praised their soon-to-be predecessors for being forthcoming and willing to put partisan struggles aside to make sure the country's governmental institutions continue functioning smoothly during the transition.
But, then, there is the justice minister and his alleged game of hide-and-seek with his proposed successor.
There was no raising of eyebrows, no narrowing of the eyes and no "So-we-meet-again" kind of exchange between the two at the hilltop presidential palace. Rather, it was an icy greeting followed by a silent line dance of handshakes between their single-filed attendants (all male in dark suits). Then, both sides walked into the glass-domed presidential palace to make some more history.
But don't expect Georgia's first, uncertain steps toward bipartisanship to lead to a warm sense of togetherness. The post-meeting press statements -- with Saakashvili granting the kick-off to Ivanishvili -- indicate that the coming political era will be defined by the Ivanishvili-led parliamentary majority trying to consolidate power and by the Saakashvili-led minority trying to score a comeback.
“We will treat our opponents not the way they deserve, but the way our country deserves,” said Ivanishvili, standing next to the man who has stripped him of his Georgian citizenship, called him a Kremlin lackey and, according to critics, whacked him with multi-million-lari fines (via state auditors) for alleged campaign-finance violations.
Four days after the October 1 vote that tossed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his United National Movement into the legislative minority, Georgia is knuckling down to the legal nitty-gritty of bipartisanship. But can it stay the course?
After a run of acerbic Georgian-Dream rallies against regional election results, negotiators from either side of Georgia’s political aisle sat down for talks today about the constitutional steps to be taken to bring in a new cabinet.
Encouragingly, the participants emerged after the meeting with neither black eyes nor missing teeth, and claimed that constructiveness and common-sense had prevailed.
United National Movement (UNM) representatives even promised to fill the Georgian Dream in on all the ongoing diplomatic, economic and defense projects to make sure the new government hits the ground running.
Looks like the Dreamers like that attitude. “We spoke of everything necessary to ensure stability and to keep the processes in line with the law," said Irakli Alasania, key member of the new parliamentary majority Georgian Dream who is challenging his reported loss to the UNM candidate in the western district of Zugdidi. "The new prime minister will prepare to take over power peacefully and make sure this process is not painful.”
The widely held assumption is that that prime minister will be the Georgian Dream's leader, tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili.
On election day , most of the accusations of meddling with the electoral process were leveled against President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement, but as the vote tabulation nears the end, tycoon Bidzina Ivanshvili’s Georgian Dream coalition increasingly has become the target of criticism.
Amidst reports of intimidation of regional election officials, Ivanishvili called today on his supporters to refrain from rallying, but a major demonstration is taking place in the key western city of Zugdidi. Former UN envoy Irakli Alasania, a leader of the Georgian Dream and a parliamentary candidate in Zugdidi, has challenged the preliminary vote-count results that placed him some 21-percentage points behind UNM candidate Roland Akhalaia, father of the controversial ex-Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia.
Although Alasania gained a seat in parliament by also being on the party list (Georgia's election code allows such double-dipping), he told supporters that they should protest the vote for "moral" reasons. Interior Ministry troops reportedly are forming defense lines around the election commission in question.
Tbilisi-based journalist (and frequent Eurasianet contributor) Paul Rimple has a very interesting take on billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream party was the big winner of Georgia's Oct. 1 parliamentary elections. How to understand the surprise contender? sit down with him for dinner, suggests Rimple. From an excellent post of his on the Roads & Kingdoms blog:
Dozens of guests are sitting around a table that is at least 20 meters long, piled high with plates of earthy east Georgian dishes. More home-cooked food is coming. I’ve got one eye on a bowl of khashlama that was just set down. So does the billionaire.
We are in Kakheti, the hilly wine region of eastern Georgia, where khashlama is the signature dish. It might look like boiled beef, but that’s like saying wine looks like vinegar. It’s actually a heroic mix of fresh herbs, salt and beef, slow-cooked in an open cauldron. The billionaire, sitting across from me, spoons a chunk onto his plate. He is the only person holding his utensils upright, like a proper European (the English journalist with us might have done the same, I suppose, but he was still holding a pen and notebook). It’s not that I hadn’t expected such upstanding usage of the cutlery—earlier I watched him taste the homemade wine as if it had been corked in France in 1981—but there are plenty of foods, including some of the herbs on the table, that are just expected to be eaten by hand in Georgia. There’s something unsettling about a man, no matter what his tax bracket, using knife and fork at a country table in Kakheti.