Georgia’s forthcoming parliamentary elections are dividing the country. A bitter campaign is pitching the coalition of Mikhaïl Saakachvili, the current pro-western president, against that of multi-millionaire Bidzina Ivanichvili, a businessman often described as being close to Moscow. In the middle is a divided electorate. Our reporters went to meet them.
"Offering or providing goods in exchange for political support by a political entity is vote-buying," says Giga Bokeria. The head of Georgia’s National Security Council has long been a member of President Mikhail Saakashvili’s inner circle. He’s talking to us about allegations the opposition has been offering voters free goods in exchange for their support in the October 1st parliamentary elections.
The Saakashvili camp is worried about a major new arrival on the political scene: Bidzina Ivanishvili. This hitherto reclusive businessman has succeeded in rapidly building a broad anti-government coalition. He’s not short of cash – Forbes estimates his personal fortune at €5 billion. The 56-year-old made his money buying public assets during the fall of the Soviet Union. Many of his business interests are still in Russia – the country against which Saakashvili fought a war in 2008. He’s even been stripped of his Georgian passport. For now, oddly, he remains a citizen of France.
Saakashvili, for his part, has been telling voters they face a choice between the West and Moscow.
"He says I am the Kremlin's man, that I am Putin's puppet. That's all he's using against me because he has nothing else to say. My past is absolutely clean," Ivanishvili assures us in his multimillion-euro base in the hills above Tbilisi. Paintings by Monet and Freud adorn the walls. Ivanishvili prides himself on his good taste, of which he says Saakashvili has none. He’s particularly upset by a new bridge the president has built in the centre of town.
It’s been an ugly campaign, with mutual allegations of bribery, corruption and coercion. As the political rivals trade blows, ordinary Georgians are stuck in the middle, trying to make sense of it all.
The presence of ultra-nationalists in Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition has spooked Georgia’s minority communities, who remember the ethnic tensions that followed the fall of the Soviets. Azeri geography teacher Erman Jarfarli is worried about change: "It doesn’t matter if you’re Armenian, Georgian, Azeri, or whatever - there are no more ethnic problems here."
For him, the country has become safer, richer and more tolerant on Saakashvili’s watch – and that’s the way he wants to keep it.
Amid Tbilisi’s anarchic construction projects, a group of men stand by the roadside in search of passing trade. They’re part-time electricians, plumbers and odd-job men. "Anybody who’s got a job is in with the government, one of them complains. And even then, the salaries are rubbish." It’s a common perception among those left behind by the president’s "economic miracle".
Democracy on trial
Meanwhile, local and international observers fear that, far from fostering the brave new democracy his Western allies dreamt of, Saakashvili’s government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
There’s certainly a touch of the KGB about Nodar Chachua’s account of his treatment by the security forces. This young journalist works for TV9, a channel owned by Ivanishvili’s wife.
Bundled into the back of a car by group of mysterious men, he was asked to "collect compromising information on colleagues as well as political parties and the movements of political leaders".
As voting day approaches, Georgia’s democracy is on trial. The West is watching. And so is the Kremlin.
France 24 reporters Chris Moore and Sylvain Rousseau went to meet the politicians pulling the strings, but also some of the ordinary people caught up in an ugly campaign which has exacerbated Georgia’s divisions.