$1Bln Offer in Georgia's Campaign

TBILISI, Georgia -- Badri Patarkatsishvili, the Georgian magnate challenging President Mikheil Saakashvili in next month's snap election, has promised to spend $1 billion of his own money to turn Georgia into a "shining country."

"Badri is ready to spend 1.6 billion lari [$1 billion] to finance social programs if he becomes president," Patarkatsishvili's campaign chief, Valery Gelbakhiani, said at a news conference Friday.

Gelbakhiani said the money would be used at the initial stages of Patarkatsishvili's program to raise living standards.

He said Patarkatsishvili intended to raise the monthly minimum wage to 300 lari ($188) and minimum pensions to 120 lari ($75). He also promised to pay most of the utility bills for Georgian households.

"He will buy up the entire crop of citrus fruit and grapes," Gelbakhiani said, striking a sensitive chord with farmers.

Under the plan, more than $1.8 billion in budget funds would be allocated to the creation of 1,000 jobs in rural areas and other social programs.

"Then we will finally come to the stage of a 'shining country,'" Gelbakhiani said.

The total wealth of Patarkatsishvili, Georgia's leading media magnate, is unknown, but he is said to be a multimillionaire.

He has remained outside Georgia since the authorities used tear gas and truncheons to break up an opposition protest in November, the biggest since Saakashvili came to power in a 2003 peaceful revolution. The authorities have threatened to charge him with plotting a coup.

The threat has been taken no further so far, and Patarkatsishvili is among seven candidates in the election called by Saakashvili to defuse tensions.

Opposition parties want to ditch the presidency if they win the Jan. 5 election and turn the country into a parliamentary republic. They accuse Saakashvili of mismanaging the economy and resorting to authoritarian measures.