Within days of the announcement last week that campaigning for the October 8 parliamentary elections will begin next month, Georgian opera singer Paata Burchuladze announced the launch of his new political party, The State for the People, which he predicted will win "strong representation" in the new parliament, given that "the whole of Georgia stands beside us."
That latter statement may be an exaggeration, but several political commentators agree that Burchuladze, whose age is variously given as either 61 or 65, is well positioned to profit from widespread public disillusion with both the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, which has failed to make good on many of its preelection promises, and with former President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement (ENM), which Georgian Dream defeated in the October 2012 parliamentary ballot.
An opinion poll conducted in March by the International Republican Institute ranked Burchuladze's Georgian Development Foundation third in popularity. Asked which party they would vote for if elections were to take place the following Sunday, 12 percent of the 1,500 respondents named the Georgian Development Foundation, compared to 19 percent support for Georgian Dream and 18 percent for the ENM. Burchuladze himself scored the highest favorability rating (75 percent) of any Georgian political figure.
That popularity is due in part to Georgians' collective pride in any of their compatriots who succeeds in acquiring an international reputation, and in part to his charitable engagement. In 2004, he set up the charitable foundation Iavnana to help vulnerable families, especially deprived children.
The founding of Burchuladze's new party was not unexpected. In late November, he had canceled all his future operatic engagements and set up the Georgian Development Foundation civic movement. Its primary objective was defined as promoting dialogue within society with the aim of "putting an end to an era of nepotism, irresponsibility, fear of what tomorrow might bring, and to the division of society into 'us' and 'them.'"
Burchuladze stressed in late December that the Georgian Development Foundation, of which he took over as head two months later, "is a public initiative and not a political organization." At the same time, he criticized Georgian Dream's track record, in particular the slowdown in 2015 in economic growth. At that rate, he argued, "we shall never catch up even with Europe's poorest states."
Burchuladze outlined his rationale for entering Georgian politics in a rambling and populist statement on May 12. Declaring that "it has finally become clear that we can no longer watch what is happening from outside," he argued that Georgia needed to break free of the alternation between hope that a new leadership will improve the situation and disillusion when it proves unable to do so.
He criticized Georgian Dream for failing to formulate, let alone implement, a precise vision for the country, and in a clear allusion to Georgian Dream founder and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who many Georgians believe continues to dictate policy, he affirmed, "We don't want this country to have an informal master...and we don't want to live in a universe formed according to his tastes," given that "we have the right to be a happy nation."
Burchuladze went on to argue that "new people" with "clean hands" should come to power, people "who are capable of getting things done but have not been involved in politics previously because they didn't want to work side by side with today's politicians." He did not explain how such a team with little or no experience would make a better job of governing the country and creating "a strong independent state," let alone reversing economic decline and tackling unemployment, which respondents in the above-mentioned opinion poll consistently singled out as Georgia's most serious problem.
Burchuladze's pronouncements on foreign policy were similarly vague: He said Georgia should take its place as an equal member of the European family, but did not mention relations with Russia and how to counter the possible threat that Moscow poses.
Speaking at a press conference later on May 12, Burchuladze declared with bathos that "I had to abandon my career and the good life because the country is in such a state." He went on to divulge that he had begun creating a network of local party organizations and that he had the backing of unnamed members of the Georgian diaspora.
It is logical to assume that Burchuladze hopes to emulate Ivanishvili, who succeeded in parlaying his reputation as a philanthropist into Georgian Dream's landslide victory over the ENM in 2012. In many ways, however, the situation today differs from that in 2012. First, there are fewer than five months to go before the elections; Ivanishvili launched Georgian Dream a year in advance.
Second, Georgian Dream swiftly came to be perceived as the sole political force capable of unseating the ENM, and consequently numerous political parties with diverging ideologies aligned under its banner for that specific purpose. Today, by contrast, most of those parties plan to run independently in the October ballot.
And third, Ivanishvili's financial resources (he made a fortune in business in Russia in the 1990s) almost certainly far exceed Burchuladze's, although it remains unclear who funds the Georgian Development Foundation. State Audit Service head Lasha Tordia has warned that there can be no overlap whatsoever between the Georgian Development Foundation and The State for the People party.