Georgian Billionaire Set to Lower Curtain on Rose Revolution

Georgians are set to elect a presidential candidate backed by their billionaire prime minister in a vote that will bring the curtain down on an era that pivoted the country toward the U.S. and Europe.

Bidzina Ivanishvili, who pulled off a shock victory over President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party in parliamentary elections last year, is backing Giorgi Margvelashvili in the Oct. 27 ballot. Margvelashvili, a former education minister, has more than twice the support of his nearest rival in the latest polls.

Capturing the presidency would complete a transition from the 2003 Rose Revolution that usurped ex-Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and loosened Georgia’s ties with Russia. With his stated goal of reshaping Georgian politics complete, Ivanishvili said he’ll hand the premier’s job to an ally after the new president is sworn in next month.

“Ivanishvili is stealing the show,” Teemu Sinkkonen, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki, said Oct. 22 in an e-mailed report. His departure “after ruling for only one year, and immediately after the long-standing Saakashvili steps down, will leave Georgia without any charismatic leader for the first time in its history.”

Margvelashvili, 43, had 39 percent support compared with 18 percent for Davit Bakradze, the choice of Saakashvili’s United National Movement, a National Democratic Institute poll of 3,838 people published Sept. 26 showed.

‘Largely Ceremonial’

He’s polling 48 percent to Bakradze’s 23 percent, according to a UNM-funded survey of 1,477 people carried out Oct. 5-11 by Greenberg Quinland Rosner Research. There are 23 registered candidates.

Margvelashvili has said he may quit the vote if he doesn’t get the 50 percent backing needed to win in the first round. While his campaign features pledges to bolster entrepreneurs and pursue friendly relations with Europe, the U.S. and Russia, his remit would be smaller than Saakashvili’s as Georgia becomes a parliamentary democracy.

“The position of president will be largely ceremonial,” Mark Mullen, head of Transparency International’s Georgia office, said yesterday by e-mail. “This is more of a referendum on the ruling team than anything else.”

Ivanishvili, who said Oct. 23 that he’d step down a week after the new president’s Nov. 17 inauguration, vowed to raise living standards, boost Russian ties and improve the justice system as he built the Georgian Dream coalition that upset the UNM in parliamentary elections last October. He may name his choice to take over on Oct. 29 or Oct. 30, according to remarks broadcast late yesterday by Rustavi 2 television.

Russian Fortune

Since taking office, Ivanishvili, who made most his $5.5 billion fortune in Russia, has introduced free health care for 2 million people and sought to calm tensions with Russia after the two nations fought a five-day war in 2008 over the breakaway South Ossetia region. Russia has this year lifted bans on Georgian wine, mineral water and agricultural products.

“With these elections, Georgia is entering a new period,” Margvelashvili told reporters today in Tbilisi. “The post-Soviet political culture is over.”

While Ivanishvili, 57, set out to defeat Saakashvili to help nurture multi-party politics, he’s persisting with some of the outgoing leader’s policies such as seeking European Union and NATO membership. Georgia is scheduled to initial an association agreement with the 28-member EU next month.

‘Fully Satisfied’

The prime minister said Sept. 2 that he’s “fully satisfied” with his performance to date and plans to leave a functioning political system rather than a nation that looks to a “messiah.”

His time in office hasn’t gone entirely smoothly. The EU and U.S. have criticized the government for arresting Saakashvili-era officials such as former Premier Vano Merabishvili and ex-Defense and Interior Minister Bacho Akhalaia. Border spats with Russia have persisted five years after their war.

Amid uncertainty over Georgia’s direction, the economy has also soured, with growth in gross domestic product slowing to 1.5 percent from a year earlier in the second quarter, down from as high as 8.2 percent in the same three months of 2012. Foreign direct investment, which fueled 5.1 percent average expansion in 2007-2012, fell for the first year in three in 2012 as Ivanishvili clashed with Saakashvili.

Investment Fund

While the premier has said he’ll channel his own money in a multi-billion-dollar private equity fund to help lure foreign investment, citizens had hoped he’d spend his wealth more freely on improving the country through initiatives such as raising pensions, David Sakvarelidze, a UNM lawmaker, said Oct. 23 by phone.

The lari has weakened 0.6 percent against the dollar this year, more than Armenia’s dram, which has lost 0.3 percent, and Azerbaijan’s manat, which is unchanged. The yield on dollar-denominated government debt due 2021 was 5.332 percent today, down from 6.105 percent two months ago.

For now, Georgians are willing to give Ivanishvili and his team the benefit of the doubt, according to Tengiz Pkhaladze, chairman of the International Centre for Geopolitical Studies in Tbilisi.

“People will demand more from the new president and the government because they have the people’s trust and people need to see results,” he said yesterday by phone.

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