Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Saakashvili Woos the People

Embattled Georgian president appoints new prime minister and promises social welfare reforms.
The message [from] the people has been heard and understood - the message is that we need to put a strong priority on social problems.” Georgia’s new prime minister Lado Gurgenidze was making his first public remarks after being appointed by President Mikheil Saakashvili on November 16.

By “message” Gurgenidze had in mind the mass protests that shook Georgia in early November which ended with the violent suppression of demonstrators on November 7, the imposition of a state of emergency and the calling of an early presidential election for January 5.

Before he steps down to run for re-election on November 25, Saakashvili has embarked on a whirlwind campaign of policy promises in the social sphere, the area in his presidency that has been most unpopular.

Although the president blamed the recent unrest on a Russian plot, experts say that by making social welfare a priority and replacing his prime minister, Saakashvili has been forced to acknowledge that the protestors had real grievances.

For several days, following the lifting of the state of emergency on November 16 and the resumption of broadcasting by most television channels, news broadcasts have shown the president holding meetings with different sections of the public.

With their main outlet, the Imedi television station, still off the air because of accusations that it was instigating a coup d’etat, the opposition has been incensed by the free publicity Saakashvili has received, calling his public appearances “campaigning at the state’s expense” and “buying voters”.

In the last four years, the government has spent large sums on repairing and building roads, putting up street lighting, painting facades and erecting new monuments and fountains. The country’s energy sector has also been overhauled and there has been a massive increase in the defence budget.

However, unemployment is still very high and around a third of the population still lives below the poverty line. The minimum pension is currently 38 laris (24 US dollars) a month.

In less than two weeks, Saakashvili has launched a flurry of initiatives. He has raised teachers’ salaries and promised them health insurance; pledged members of the academy of sciences a big salary increase; given out gas and electricity vouchers to pensioners; unveiled a new employment programme; and pledged winter wood fuel vouchers for every family in the countryside.

Several of the announcements Saakashvili made overturned reforms his own government had introduced. For example, at a meeting with war veterans, he pledged to restore a series of social benefits that had been abolished. He has also halted government plans to make the use of cash registers in markets compulsory, a move that had angered small traders.

The promises mark a sharp contrast with most of Saakashvili’s public pronouncements over the past year which have been about joining NATO, economic growth and a rise in foreign investment in Georgia.

He also dismissed prime minister Zurab Nogaideli on grounds of ill-health and appointed 36-year-old Gurgenizde, a banker with dual Georgian-British citizenship, to head the government.

“The main priority is job creation and social welfare and all this has to be done in constant interaction with the people,” Saakashvili told Gurgenidze. “We should be very concrete and open with the people and there should be no distance at all between the government and the people.”

The Tbilisi city authorities had been mercilessly pulling down garages and other structures that they said had been put up illegally. Now residents have been told they can legalise any building work that does not cause actual problems for the city.

Two years ago, Saakashvili announced a policy of “zero tolerance” on all types of crime. Now he has declared his first amnesty since the Rose Revolution, freeing 1,000 prisoners.

He has promised that the minimum pension will be raised to 55 lari (34 dollars) a month from December 1 and 76 lari from October 1 next year. The increases will cost the government around 14 million lari (8.6 million dollars).

“We are doing everything that the state can do in this situation,” said Saakashvili.

Tinatin Khidasheli, one of the leaders of the opposition Republican Party, scorned the plans, saying, “By doing this he is once again insulting his citizens. He is telling them that he wants to buy them up. And this approach only confirms what his real style of government is.”

Lado Papava, a former economics minister who is now an expert with the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies, said the announcements were a “pre-election move”. He said that they were justified because the poorest members of society would benefit but that they would undoubtedly fuel inflation.

David Darchiashvili, head of the Open Society Institute in Tbilisi, told IWPR, “These are pre-election moves but they are also a reply to the demands of many thousand people demonstrating at the beginning of November.”

Darchiashvili said the government needed “new, clear and thought out social policies”.

Some voters are cynical about the president’s new-found enthusiasm for social welfare policies.

“Saakashvili has turned into Father Christmas who makes all wishes come true,” said Lali Narchemashvili, 37. “They should be ashamed of themselves, remembering these people just before the elections. They used to care just about new fountains. I think that he will only fulfil these promises in part. Personally I won’t be bought and I won’t vote for him.”

“It’s quite normal,” said 62-year-old Elguja Surmava, who said he will vote for Saakashvili in the election. “All politicians behave like that before elections. What does it matter if pensions are going up ahead of the elections? The main thing is that they are going up.”

Dmitry Avaliani is a journalist with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.