The Mayor and the Footballer

by Lincoln Mitchell

In Georgia’s recent local elections, Kakha Kaladze won handily in his bid to become Tbilisi’s mayor. As the nominee of the ruling Georgian Dream party, Kaladze was the strong favorite in an election where the ultimate outcome was never really in doubt. Perhaps understandably, the international media has not paid much attention to Kaladze’s victory — which is essentially a minor story in the global context — except to note that Tbilisi’s new mayor was once a football star. Headlines at ESPN (“Ex-AC Milan defender Kakha Kaladze elected mayor of Georgia capital Tbilisi”), the BBC’s sports section (“Kakha Kaladze: Ex-AC Milan defender elected Tbilisi mayor”), and Reuters (“Former Soccer Star Kaladze Becomes Mayor of Georgia’s Capital”) are all examples of this.

This kind of coverage, at least superficially, almost suggests that Kaladze went directly from Milan’s football pitch to Tbilisi’s City Hall. Of course, anybody who has been paying attention to Georgian politics over the last five or six years knows this is not true. Kaladze was a major player in Georgian Dream’s upset victory in 2012, served as Minister of Energy and Vice-Prime Minister in the Georgian Dream government, and had an important role in most of the Georgian Dream campaigns since 2012. Kaladze is a former footballer, but by now he is also an established and accomplished politician.

Kaladze (right) during an AC Milan match. Source: Wikimedia.

In some respects, constantly describing Kaladze as a former footballer minimizes his bona fides as a mayor, suggesting that his election was some kind of fluke based on his fame in a realm unrelated to politics. For this reason, supporters of the newly elected mayor might chafe at this. However, Kaladze’s life before politics as a starting player in one of the world’s most storied soccer clubs has been a huge advantage for him politically, bringing him positive name recognition that would be the envy of most politicians. While it’s easy to overstate the impact of his playing days in Milan on the recent mayoral contest, it is no exaggeration to acknowledge that his background in football made him such a genuinely valuable asset to Georgian Dream’s upstart campaign back in 2012.

“Today, Kaladze is in a position to use his football history to be a better mayor and to more ably serve his Tbilisi constituents.”

Today, Kaladze is in a position to use his football history to be a better mayor and to more ably serve his Tbilisi constituents. His fame will not make him better at delivering services or addressing the city’s mounting problems with traffic, pollution, and unemployment in the Georgian capital, at least not directly. However, his fame should make it possible for Kaladze to draw more international attention to Georgia. Kaladze is generally better known and more well liked than probably any mayor of any comparable city in the region. This makes it much easier for him to be an ambassador for Tbilisi, particularly in Europe. He is extremely well positioned to promote tourism in Tbilisi, bring conferences and other events there, and to draw support from internationally known experts to address some of Tbilisi’s more vexing problems. That’s not nothing.

The nature of contemporary urban policy making is that cities — and, by extension, metropolitan regions — must compete with each other for resources and attention. In a large country like the US, this is chiefly (but by no means exclusively) a domestic question. However, for Tbilisi, which anchors a smaller country like Georgia in a more crowded European-Eurasian neighborhood, this competition is more recognizably international. Georgian voters should hope and expect Kaladze to be able to leverage his name recognition and international ties to help Tbilisi in that competition to a much greater degree than any of his predecessors.

Over the last few years, Georgia has been increasingly successful in its campaign to present itself as more than just another post-Soviet state plagued by corruption and Russian dirty tricks, although the latter is still very real. Instead, Georgia has showcased itself as a hip and vibrant place with a distinctive and independently attractive arts, style, design, wine, and culinary scenes that should be of interest to the rest of the world. Tbilisi is at the center of all of that. Having a mayor with some international renown and a fun backstory is only going to make it easier to tell that story.

Dr. Lincoln Mitchell is an EDSN Fellow and a political development specialist based in New York and San Francisco. EDSN is an international project of the Center for Social Sciences, Tbilisi, and made possible with generous funding from the National Endowment for Democracy.