Georgia just got itself a new prime minister and a new TV series. The prime minister is billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili (by a vote of 88 to 54) and the show is the televised sessions of parliament, featuring President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement as the outspoken, hopping-mad opposition.
Crossing the genres between sitcom and drama, the series is set in a 133.7-million-lari ($80.7 million) spaceship of a parliament building -- complete with leaking glass roof.
The first episode aired yesterday as the minority National Movement grilled Ivanishvili on his suitability for the prime minister's job.
But if the launch prompted some viewers to suggest that television stations should add laugh tracks, today, in episode two, the show became more substantial and serious, with both the ministerial candidates and the lawmakers getting down to the brass tacks of the new Georgian government’s program.
Russia and the economy shaped up as the most divisive issues between Ivanishvili's motley Georgian Dream coalition and the minority, pro-Saakashvili MPs.
Ivanishvili’s proposed foreign minister, Maia Panjikidze, said that resumption of diplomatic ties with Moscow would be contingent on Russian troops withdrawing from the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- granted, the same idea as under Saakashvili.
But Ivanishvili's criticism of the president as the supposed instigator of the 2008 war with Russia, his plans to engage Russia and look for potential areas of cooperation caused an outburst of criticism from the UNM, which, in one voice, voted against his nomination and that of his cabinet.
On the economy, Ivanishvili spoke of his intention to drift away from the Saakashvili plan of a gradual reduction in income taxes.
He promised a move toward agricultural subsidies, a contributory pension system, more benefits for the unemployed and the vulnerable, a reduction in utility fees, universal health insurance and near-total employment. He also called for a ban on genetically modified crops and promotion of bio farming.
By contrast, yesterday had provided glimpses of Ivanishvili the man. He was asked why he is so rich, and if he ever had had to do anything untoward while making billions in Russia. (Answer: No.)
He shared his thoughts on tolerance of various minorities -- a quality that the UNM finds lacking in the Georgian Dream. Hate speech is never cool, but a Georgian man is tolerant at heart, opined Ivanishvili.
The members of the minority also needled Ivanishvili on one pressing question – Will he go through with his threat to tear down Tbilisi's glass Peace Bridge, a controversial, Saakashvili-promoted structure that happily glitters in neon lights over the Mtkvari River, and symbolizes the divide between the country’s political banks?
Ivanishvili chose to equivocate.
But perhaps the main intrigue in Georgia's political theater is its new prime minister's personal plans.
To prove that he is not in it for the money or the power, Ivanishvili plans to quit the show in less than a year. But can the series be a success without its main protagonist?