“I passed the Konka and, instead of seeing Pirosmani’s Meezove (‘groundskeeper’) statue, I found Ugulava instead,” joked journalist Davit Paichadze, speaking of Ugulava’s unconventional campaign style. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Ugulava made himself available to bake bread in Tbilisi bakeries, cut wood, fill petrol tanks at gas stations, and swept yards in a bid to shake his image as a pedigreed insider. While the public response was mixed – some found Ugulava’s stand-ins unnatural – the truth is that the Tbilisi mayor is no stranger to wearing new hats. Besides mayor and government technocrat, Ugulava has also been a watchman, a charcoal dealer, journalist, teacher, and civil activist.
“When I was 18, my friend’s father offered me a job as night watchman at the Soros Foundation,” Ugulava told Tabula. “I agreed, and my salary was 100 dollars … it was there that I learned how to use the computer – what was I supposed to do all night?”
“Being a waiter was such a difficult job for me in Germany,” the mayor also notes, who studied briefly in Germany. “I was in school and I had to save money. It’s not easy to serve food to others when you’re hungry.”
Ugulava’s focus on food is not unusual and is something for which he still has a reputation – his gastronomical pursuits and frequent diets are a source of great attention in Tbilisi. Today, Ugulava spends his time on issues like roofing buildings, constructing roads, fixing elevators, and cleaning streets. But Ugulava’s attention to more prosaic things is more of a recent development, as he once labored over more arcane subjects like theology, philosophy, and sociology as a student at Tbilisi Theological Seminary, the University of Saarbrücken in Germany, and Tbilisi State University, his alma mater.
Ugulava’s lofty pursuits brought him to Iberia Television, where he worked as a journalist for a time until moving into the NGO sector where he worked as a trainer of legal education, where he first met Mikheil Saakashvili, then the Minister of Justice.
Over time, Ugulava became well-known as an instrumental figure at the Liberty Institute and in the Kmara (‘Enough’) movement, a group that helped spearhead what would later become the Rose Revolution.
After the revolution, Ugulava was bounced around from ministry to ministry – his role constantly changing. First he served as deputy minister of justice and security, then the presidential attorney in Zemo Svaneti and Samegrelo, then the head of the presidential administration, and finally found some stability as Tbilisi mayor in 2006 via the city council.
Ugulava’s private life has also seen a little tumult, as he divorced his first wife last year and married Lela Kiladze. “I want to be with the person I love and no one else,” says the mayor. “I believe that lying is a crime.” Ugulava has four children – Taso, Koko, Tina, and Levan – with a fifth on the way, due in July.
In the spring of 2009, Ugulava first publicly floated the idea of direct elections, saying on Rustavi 2 that he supported the concept. Though events seem to have vindicated the mayor today, at the time he faced a well of criticism from others in his party. Speaking to Tabula, Ugulava notes that his words were more than just off-the-cuff remarks. “In spite of the variety of opinions, most of my team was positive to the idea,” he says. “Even though the previous format was democratic, Tbilisi residents still preferred this alternative.”
Ugulava’s gamble to go with direct elections and move them from autumn to spring proved to be worthwhile. The opposition, failing to capitalize on the opportunity, has withered and found itself demoralized. But Ugulava’s policy-oriented campaign has handed the opposition a chance to focus on the things that matters most to voters: practical issues. And that is how Ugulava was trusted by the electorate with another term in city hall.
By the time Ugulava made his statement on the direct elections in spring 2009, Ugulava was only polling at around 30 percent, according to surveys conducted by Greenbery Quinlan Rosner, a public opinion research firm. After endorsing direct elections, Ugulava set himself up for a gradual but steady rise in the polls, leading to a May 2010 victory with about 55 percent of the vote.
In the past, Ugulava has been actively involved in the grueling crucible of domestic politics, particularly in November 2007 and during the elections in 2008, but has increasingly deserted day-to-day political maneuvering and has turned his attention to social issues. “If you work 12 hours a day and you are busy with politics for eight, you don’t have time to do the things for which you were elected,” explains Ugulava. “I will not let this happen again – I will work to reduce unemployment and defeating poverty,” he vows.
During his campaign, Ugulava appealed to the public on the grounds of social and economic issues and duly refrained from the mudslinging politics that many expected to be the hallmark of the campaign. Trying to avoid excessive promising to his constituents – his political consultants warned that it could backfire – Ugulava instead campaigned on pledges to be a fair steward and to do his best to tackle Tbilisi’s problems.
Even the international, London-based newsweekly, The Economist, saw fit to comment on the municipal elections. “The vote was billed as a test of Georgia’s political temperature, a referendum on Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s president, and a rehearsal for the presidential elections in 2013.” This conventional wisdom begs the question: for a man who framed his campaign on social and economic issues, does he have the political fight and acumen to carry him to higher echelons of power? Some are doubtful, saying that although Ugulava’s tenure has been marked by pragmatism, he has not carved out a distinctive political narrative for himself and seems to be focused entirely on his post as Tbilisi Mayor. If he indeed had aspirations for higher office, the man whose popularity is only second to that of Saakashvili would be unlikely to stick so closely to such workaday issues.
Ugulava himself responds with crisp sensibility – something he’s becoming known for. “The public knows what I think and that I share the opinions of others in my party,” he says. “That’s why we’re on the same side. I think people should focus on my job as mayor – there are people in the [United National Movement] who are better suited to these other jobs. I have no reason to want to leave the job I have.”
“Ugulava is, of course, still young and still has more growing and learning to do,” says one of Ugulava’s advisors to Tabula on the condition of anonymity. “He faces a city with major, continuing challenges, such as too little employment. The next few years will be a real test of his abilities – to expand employment in the city, to improve services and living conditions, and to create more political harmony and unity in Tbilisi.”
Ugulava’s advisor, however, is upbeat. “Given his accomplishments and growth so far, I have real hopes that Ugulava will continue to surprise people and will make even more gains in the years to come.”
According to international observers, the May 30 election was another step in the right direction for Georgian democracy, despite some shortcomings. Perhaps more importantly, the election results were followed not by protests and violence, but by a civil congratulations by the runner up to the winner.