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PR in the political battlefield

By Messenger Staff
Tuesday, January 31
The entry of Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili into the country's raucous political arena has caused quite a stir. Until he emerged as a credible threat, the ruling United National Movement (UNM) party held a clear advantage over a fractured opposition that lacked a strong voice, and a strong leader. UNM has recognized Ivanishvili as a serious competitor, and has hastily begun attacking him and his team with all possible legislative and PR tactics. Meanwhile, Ivanishvili remains in standby mode, without an established political party, relying only on his public movement, Georgian Dream.

The current administration has a long and successful history with public relations campaigns. Prior to the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili and his supporters carried out a series of anti-Shevardnadze operations which culminated in the former president's withdrawal from the office. While in power, UNM unleashed a similar campaign against another billionaire rival, Badri Patarkatsishvili, in 2007. At the time, both Saakashvili's opponents owned at least one nation-wide television station, while in contrast most broadcasters today are under state control (the only major exceptions being Maestro and Kavkasia, both of whom only operate in Tbilisi). The Saakashvili administration therefore has the advantage of excluding pro-Ivanishvili voices and reinforcing media criticism of Georgian Dream.

Saakashvili is also running a positive PR campaign, centred on his own image as a leader. Last fall, he began traveling around the country, opening hospitals in different towns almost every day, under the "30-in-30" program. These hospitals are constructed and operated by private companies, not the state, but Saakashvili credits his government policy for their opening, and uses each high-profile event to his administration's advantage.

Most footage of the President on television strengthens his image as "Misha", the charismatic leader who embraces chanting, grateful crowds wherever he goes. His speeches are crafted to highlight his opponents' faults and praise his administration's achievements, and create an environment where it appears as though there is no alternative to himself and the UNM. This helps him retain his status as a revolutionary and man of the people.

Meanwhile, Ivanishvili has not yet begun campaigning, or even established a political party although one can presume that a person who manages to accumulate several billion US dollars during the last 15 years has enough organizational experience to arrange a PR campaign for himself. He has so far taken steps to purchase and launch a new TV channel, and is engaged in a battle to retain his Georgian citizenship. Yet it is now the end of January Ivanishvili has very little time to create an effective anti-Misha machine.