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Georgia’s Election Features Dueling Duet between Billionaire and Opera Singer

Gürcistan 16 Eylül 2016
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A Georgian opera singer did not invite a Georgian billionaire to his birthday party and now they hate each other, fighting for their country in an election campaign that is as much a battle of egos as it is a contest in lavish promises.

Georgia’s richest man, 60-year-old former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, can afford lots of things — transplanting a 100-year-old tree via the Black Sea; installing a Dubai-style mega-business complex above the historic center of the Georgian capital,Tbilisi; or simply casting a long shadow over Georgian politics. But his money couldn’t buy him the love of an opera singer.

Declining the billionaire’s advances to team up for Georgia’s October 8 parliamentary election, renowned operatic bass Paata Burchuladze, 61, will be challenging the incumbent party, Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia, which Ivanishvili founded and brought to power four years ago.

Back then, when Ivanishvili was corralling supporters to dislodge Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, he asked the singer to join the party. “He asked for oodles of money for it and I was offended. I have obviously refused,” Ivanishvili claimed in the latest of his sit-downs with the media, meant to sway public opinion in favor of the government, widely believed to still be under his thumb.

“Could I have possibly asked for a sum that he could not afford? I must have charged a good rate for myself,” Burchuladze quipped in his dulcet bass.

Whether or not the story of their unproductive haggling is true, the two have not met for three sulky years and the billionaire says it broke his heart to miss the singer’s three birthday parties in a row. “I am offended. I am not going to hide it,” said Ivanishvili.

Ivanishvili, who served as prime minister from 2012-2013, has never been shy about airing to reporters his own supposed virtues or his critics’ supposed vices.

“I quit politics . . .with a dignity that knows no precedence in history,” he commented, Donald-Trump style, on September 8.

Then, he turned his hand to putting down rivals and splitters from the ruling coalition; people, who, like Burchuladze, make up Georgia’s ballot of 830 majoritarian candidates and 11 parties and blocs running for the 150-seat parliament.

Take, for instance, Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, the 48-year-old leader of the Republican Party. Now, he has not lifted a finger to make headway on switching Georgia from a mixed to a parliamentary system of government, observed Ivanishvili, who backs the change.

He also would be remiss not to mention his favorite whipping boy, former Defense Minister Irakli Alasania, 42, and his Free Democrats Party. How many things can one man muck up, really?, the billionaire asked. And so he went on.

The backbiting led to angry responses. Alasania accused Ivanishvili of compromising national interests for personal score-settling and went back to promising voters a 66-percent hike in monthly pensions [to 300 laris or $130.41) and a 4-lari (over $1.73 billion) increase in the national budget. The portly and normally composed Usupashvili huffed and puffed, brandishing papers corroborating his hard work.

It was, in fact, Ivanishvili who brought along both men and their parties into the fold of the former Georgian Dream alliance and elevated them to top government offices. But over the past few years, allies have been taking turns to quit the Georgian Dream coalition and to complain about meddling from the billionaire. Now they are competing against the former alliance’s mothership, the Ivanishvili-made Georgian Dream.

Georgian politics have long featured dramatic break-ups, re-alignments, feuds, larger-than-life characters and even private liaisons befitting a docudrama set in ancient Rome. The main opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), has had its share of breakups, too. Schismatics, some complaining that the party’s founder, ex-President Saakashvili, has an overbearing influence over the UNM, formed their own groups to become hangers-on in the Burchuladze-led bloc, The State for People.

Amid a steady flow of conspiracy theories, Ivanishvili claimed that Burchuladze ganged up with his arch-nemesis, Saakashvili, and that the singer’s bloc is an informal branch of the UNM. Lending some credence to the claim, a wiretapped phone conversation conveniently surfaced on the Internet.

In the conversation, Burchuladze discusses his political alliances with Saakashvili ally Nika Gvaramia, director of the influential pro-UNM Rustavi2 television station. Both interlocutors accused Ivanishvili of ordering police to tape and leak their call.

And, like a never-ending rerun, the Ivanishvili-Saakashvili feud also continues to haunt the campaign. Both men are being effectively positioned as key selling points for their respective parties. From his command post in Ukraine, Saakashvili has been Skyping endorsements of the UNM’s parliamentary nominees and enumerating to Rustavi2 all the good things he had planned to do in Georgia, if only that Ivanishvili character had not gotten in the way.

Monitors from the Washington, DC-based International Republican Institute noted on September 15 that Saakashvili’s video-appearances on the campaign trial violate Georgian election law. Saakashvili, now a Ukrainian citizen, lost his Georgian citizenship in 2015, but underlines that he plans to return to Georgia.

With the ongoing Bidzina-Misha faceoff, this election seems to be picking up where the last election left off – albeit, relatively calmly. Gauging Georgian voters’ proclivities is a tricky business since many remain tight-lipped about their political preferences. Election mavens, therefore, are left to watch the twists and turns in a race that seems messy and overcrowded, but, some observers argue, still makes for the best democracy the region has to offer.
by Giorgi Lomsadze

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