The former Soviet state of Georgia will hold fiercely contested parliamentary elections on Monday. For the first time since coming to power in 2004, President Mikheil Saakashvili’s fervently pro-Western government risks being ousted – by a billionaire tycoon, suspected of having close links to the Kremlin, who wants to re-establish relations with Russia. Two elderly women selling fruit at one of Tbilisi’s many outdoor markets shout loudly at each other, arguing about who should lead the country. A man carrying his shopping yells over his opinion as he walks past. This is political debate, Georgian-style. Apathy is certainly not a problem in these elections. Both sides regard this vote as an all-or-nothing fight for power. Most of the people standing behind the stalls here scrape by on a few dollars a day, selling fruit and vegetables. They see Georgia’s richest man – the billionaire opposition leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, as their saviour – and the possibility of renewed trade links with Russia as an economic lifeline.
“He’s a good man,” says Ilia Makharadze, a 47-year-old market trader. “He will open borders with Russia, and Georgians will be able to travel there again. We don’t need America. No-one in my family has work,” says 57-year-old Tamar Jandgashvili. “I buy a basket of plums. And then come here to this market to try and sell some. Is this a life?”
More than half of the country’s population has no proper job. Older and poorer Georgians, in particular, are struggling in a neo-liberal economy seen as cut-throat and Americanised. Some say life was better as part of the Soviet Union. Many of them will vote for Mr Ivanishvili, who has promised to use his own fortune to eradicate poverty.