Former AC Milan defender targets political goals in Georgia


LETTER FROM GEORGIA:Kakha Kaladze swapped the pampered life of a soccer star for tough politics in his homeland

FOLLOWERS OF Georgia’s colourful political world will have found familiar faces among the new ministers nominated by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, a week after his Georgian Dream coalition secured a stunning election victory over the party of President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Georgia’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Irakli Alasania, was named defence minister; his sister-in-law Maia Panjikidze, a former envoy to Germany and the Netherlands, will be foreign minister; and Ivanishvili’s right-hand man, Irakli Garibashvili, will be interior minister.

For those not acquainted with Tbilisi’s political movers and shakers, only one name would have stood out: Kakha Kaladze, former AC Milan defender, twice winner of the Champions League – and now deputy premier and minister for regional development and infrastructure.

Kaladze (34) spent a decade at AC Milan and then played for two seasons at Genoa before swapping the pampered existence of a Serie A star for life on the campaign trail back in Georgia.

The decision of a national footballing hero to back Ivanishvili was a huge coup for the formerly publicity-shy tycoon.

But though many ordinary Georgians were thrilled by his decision to enter public life, not everyone made Kaladze feel welcome when he returned home.

A court fined him more than $10 million and ordered his homes and cars to be impounded for his alleged use of his private fortune for campaign funding.

Kaladze denounced the charges as part of a government plot to undermine the opposition, and refused to pay the fines. In similar cases, which raised concern among some democracy watchdogs, Ivanishvili was fined tens of millions of euro for supposed campaign irregularities.

In a bitter campaign battle between Saakashvili’s allies and Georgian Dream, Kaladze endured “a year of fighting, with some people throwing stones at me, cursing me, spitting on me”.

“But most people had a positive feeling towards me and Bidzina Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream. People always had a good feeling when they saw me and most still do,” he said.

“When Bidzina Ivanishvili came into politics, the people saw hope and so did I. We met, talked about things and found we had common ground. We both want Georgia to be part of the EU and Nato. So I had to support him.”

Saakashvili claims Ivanishvili will undo the modernising reforms of the last decade, and restore the power of Russia and organised crime groups over Georgia. Yesterday, however, Ivanishvili restated his desire for Georgia to join Nato.

Sitting in his office at Georgian Dream headquarters in Tbilisi, a relaxed Kaladze had no time for what he sees as Saakashvili’s doom-mongering.

“Saakashvili’s power was built on two things: fear and PR. Until now there was no opposition strong enough to challenge him,” Kaladze said.

“No one expected it to happen like this,” he said of Georgias apparently smooth transfer of power. “People expected a revolution – but we have done it peacefully and democratically.”

Comparing election victory to winning the Champions League, Kaladze said both “were great feelings”. “And I see a connection between sport and politics. Both are team efforts, though of course the responsibility is much greater in politics . . . the fate of the country is in our hands.”

On his ministerial travels around the former Soviet Union, Kaladze may encounter several high-profile figures with whom to discuss the transition from sport to politics. Russia’s lower house of parliament is now the workplace of former tennis star Marat Safin and the “Beast from the East” – seven-foot-tall ex-heavyweight boxing champion Nikolai Valuev.

Olympic gold medallist gymnasts Svetlana Khorkina and Alina Kabayeva have also served as deputies for Russia’s ruling party. Kabayeva has been romantically linked with President Vladimir Putin – rumours that both of them vehemently deny.

When Ukraine holds parliamentary elections later this month, perhaps the two biggest sports stars in the country will go head to head: world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko and former Chelsea and AC Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko.

Polls show Klitschko’s pro-western, liberal party – known by the acronym Udar, which means “punch” in Ukrainian – running second behind President Viktor Yanukovych’s allies less than three weeks before the ballot.

Shevchenko’s newly formed Ukraine Forward! party, a pro-business group, is much less popular, despite the footballer ploughing almost €1 million of his own cash into the project.

While Ukraine’s sporting heroes try to parlay popularity into power, Kaladze already has it. And as minister for regional development and infrastructure, he could use it to improve Georgia’s road network and smooth the way towards a reunion with the stable of luxury cars – including a Rolls Royce, a Ferrari and a Lamborghini – that he still keeps in Italy.

“I’ve always loved cars,” Kaladze said. “But I can’t keep my sports cars in Georgia – just look at the state of the roads.”

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