Georgia Is Preparing For Life After Misha

In the fall, a series of huge billboard posters appeared in the Georgian capital, depicting construction projects as part of a state-funded advertising promotion under the slogan, “I Love Tbilisi.” For a while, the entire facade of the Georgian parliament was even turned into a massive advertising billboard for the campaign.

Then, on New Year’s, a promotional video clip was aired, showing prosperous, attractive young Georgians cruising merrily down Tbilisi’s main drag under glittering, festive lights, as fireworks illuminated the skyline, showering sparks over a five-star hotel and the glowing glass dome of the new presidential palace.

According to some observers, this ad campaign selling the wonders of the capital to its own residents isn’t just an example of municipal boosterism. It’s no coincidence, they speculate, that an election is coming up soon, one that could prove crucial for Georgia’s political future. That’s because whoever is elected as the mayor of Tbilisi in the coming months is probably going to be seen as the strongest candidate to succeed President Mikheil Saakashvili when he finally steps down in 2013.

Life after “Misha” is what the Georgian opposition has been dreaming about for some time. But Saakashvili’s United National Movement party is keen to maintain a strong grip on the country after he leaves office. Its candidate for the mayor’s position will be the incumbent, a Saakashvili loyalist called Gigi Ugulava.

For months now, Ugulava has been getting widespread coverage on the pro-government television channels, depicting him as a no-nonsense, action-man figure with the people’s welfare in his heart. Opposition media have complained about a series of new initiatives to provide more benefits to pensioners and other needy citizens, which they’ve condemned as shameless electioneering.

But because of political differences and personal ambitions, the opposition will not run a unity candidate for mayor, putting its chances in jeopardy. The metropolitan liberal hope, Irakli Alasania, a former ambassador to the United Nations who turned against Saakashvili after the war with Russia, is considered to be the leading challenger. One television channel has already been running derogatory stories about him, an indication that he is being seen as a serious threat. It may also be a sign that Tbilisi could be about to witness yet another bitterly passionate struggle for power.

Matthew Collin is a journalist based in Tbilisi.

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