Aug 9th 2012, 11:23 by G.E. | TBILISI
(economist.com) CALL it the “AC Milan effect”. George Weah, Milan’s star striker in the late 1990s, ran for president in his native Liberia in 2005. Andriy Shevchenko, the Ukrainian goal machine who replaced Mr Weah in 1999, has just retired from football to enter politics. And Georgian defender Kakha Kaladze (pictured), who played for the club from 2001 to 2010, hung up his boots in December to join Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition. Did Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's former prime minister who owns the club, inspire them?
As one of Georgia’s most successful footballers, Mr Kaladze has populist appeal-even if his two own goals against Italy in 2009 prevented Georgia from qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. Mr Saakashvili also wants to make political capital out of sporting success, promising lavish cash prizes to Olympic medal-winners. (So far, Georgia has three.) That is not unusual in this part of the world: communist countries used to pursue Olympic success ruthlessly; Azerbaijan has also promised to enrich its successful Olympians.
Georgian populism has more distinctive characteristics too. When Mr Ivanishvili entered politics in October last year, he spoke in quasi-messianic terms of how he would revolutionise Georgian democracy within two years. He recently proclaimed that “everything is developing the way I planned”-even though few Georgians know what he has in mind. If anything, Mr Saakashvili is even more exuberant. Shortly before the Rose Revolution in 2003, he described his campaign as “the final battle between good and evil”. Over the years, he has promised that Poti, a depressed port in the west of the country, would become the “Dubai of the Black Sea”, and that Batumi would be its Singapore. Now, television stations regularly broadcast his “free hugs” particularly with old ladies.
Mr Ivanishvili’s entry into politics has brought increased focus on the issues that matter most to ordinary Georgians. Yet while the economy is doing well (GDP grew by 7% in 2011), the government’s economic reforms play better abroad than with the Georgian public. Instead, the measures proposed by both sides, such as 1,000 GEL vouchers for each family, universal health insurance, and increased pensions, smack of vote-buying. The government says it is already tackling unemployment; yet the newly formed employment agency, while busily registering the unemployed, lacks a compelling vision of how it will help them thereafter.
The real question is how the different parties would pay for their promises. While Mr Ivanishvili could subsidise the budget with his own wealth, that would not benefit Georgia’s longer-term political development. Fiscal responsibility is one hallmark of any good government, but it hardly figures in any party’s political campaign.
More darkly, some politicians, particularly amongst Mr Ivanishvili’s colleagues, try to win support through intolerance towards religious, ethnic or sexual minorities; to be Georgian, they imply, is to be orthodox Christian. In contrast, the ruling party speaks of a more inclusive version of Georgian nationalism which it projects externally, as when describing Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO, or its turbulent relationship with Russia.
That relationship is probably the most significant issue at stake in these elections. In a speech on 7th August marking the fourth anniversary of the two countries’ short war over South Ossetia in 2008, Mr Saakashvili claimed that Russia plans to “subdue Georgia from within”, implying once again that Mr Ivanishvili is a Russian stooge. While an overwhelming majority of Georgians disapprove of the stand-off between the two countries, Mr Saakashvili insists that appeasement with Russia would not work. Mr Ivanishvili, in contrast, fears that Georgia’s current path would make it a “Caucasian Cuba”. Instead, he promises to “drop Cold War rhetoric” and begin a “firm but principled dialogue with Russia”. Yet quite what that would mean in practice is less clear.
The Central Election Committee has registered over 3.3m voters for the parliamentary elections on October 1st, the highest number since the country became independent. Polls indicate that voter turn-out will be high. But Georgians would do well to take both sides’ election promises with heavy pinches of salt. Otherwise, yet more disillusionment will follow.