This is a guest post by TOL intern Nino Tsintsadze.
After Georgia’s parliamentary elections in October, the confrontation between the winners and losers is moving into another arena.
Last week the new government announced cuts in the budget for the office of President Mikheil Saakashvili, with his palace residence the first target.
On 2 November, prime minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili said the maintenance costs of the building are too high and called on the president to move his administration back to the communist-era government headquarters.
The history of the presidential palace dates to 2004, when shortly after the Rose Revolution newly elected Saakashvili decided to build a presidential residence to unite his home and office. Previously, he had rented a flat near the parliament building, refusing to move into the official residence, part of which had been given over to the use of Eduard Shevardnaze, Saakashvili’s predecessor and Rose Revolution adversary.
The new presidential palace officially opened on 12 July 2009, in timing that rankled many as the toll of Georgians living in makeshift refugee quarters had swelled after the August 2008 war with Russia.
The palace complex sits in the picturesque historic center of Tbilisi on about 22,000 square meters (237,000 square feet) – several times the size of the White House – overlooking the Mtkvari river. It includes several buildings of distinct architectural styles united around a massive internal yard. The main building is in the classical style with a gigantic glass dome in the center, and the yard contains a few statues and sculptures by Spanish, German, and Georgian artists. Since its opening, the proud president has shown off the palace to Western politicians, diplomats, and at least one Hollywood star, Sharon Stone.
The government has never said exactly how much the project cost. Various Georgian media, depending on how friendly they were to Saakashvili’s administration, have put it at 40 million to 800 million lari ($24 million to $482 million). In response to criticism about the opacity of the palace’s construction costs, Saakashvili once said it had soaked up “approximately, less than one-fifth of a percent of the Georgian budget expenditure for last five years.”
The new government has vowed to investigate and make the costs public. At the same time, Ivanishvili says the palace’s annual electric bill of 800,000 lari ($482,000) is indefensible in a country where 36.5 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to government statistics.
With the cuts envisioned in the 2013 budget, which has already been submitted to parliament for approval, the presidential administration says it has been forced to turn off the palace’s exterior lights.
Ivanishvili’s supporters in the social media sphere have chimed in, arguing that that money would be better spent elsewhere, but others say the palace represents the image of new Georgia, enlightened and modern. Some even fear that the decision to shut out the lights might come in for mockery from abroad.
Directly opposite the darkened palace stands an illuminated business and residential complex developed by Ivanishvili and designed by Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu. Works by Roy Lichtenstein and Damien Hirst are said to hang on the walls inside, and the yard boasts works by Henry Moore, Zaha Hadid, and others. All of it – including outdoor lighting – is funded by the billionaire himself. As for his office, Ivanishvili chose the government headquarters. It is there, in the former office of Shevardnaze, that the new prime minister invites Saakashvili to work also.