Ex-Soviet Georgia seeks pop star glamour


Ex-Soviet Georgia may not appear the most glamorous destination, but officials hope that pop stars like Sting, Enrique Iglesias and Macy Gray can add showbiz chic to their bid to attract tourists.
Although critics have mocked efforts to use a series of major pop concerts to promote the small Caucasus republic’s image, officials believe that the celebrity glitz will seduce others into sampling Georgia’s charms. “The arrival of international stars in Georgia makes the country more recognisable for millions of people around the world and this contributes to the development of tourism,” President Mikheil Saakashvili said after watching Sting’s gig in the seaside resort of Batumi this month.
Saakashvili believes that tourism could be a major revenue source for an impoverished country that can offer a spectacular mountain landscape as well as Black Sea beaches.
His opponents however accuse him of wasting money on stars’ wages while the economy struggles to recover from the global recession and a war with neighbour Russia in 2008.
“I think it is inappropriate because there are many more urgent matters than Sting that require attention in our country,” said Tina Khidasheli, a leader of the opposition Republican Party.
The authorities recently cut a deal with music channel MTV that will see Enrique Iglesias jetting in for a branded show next month that’s being billed as “the biggest party Georgia has ever seen”.
“Music events like this show Georgia as a fashionable destination where you can have a great time with global stars whom you love to hear,” said George Zurabashvili, an official at the prime minister’s office, which is involved in organising the concert.
But Georgia isn’t just using pop music to promote itself.
The authorities have also hosted high-profile classical concerts featuring singers like Andrea Bocelli and Placido Domingo, and flew in Hollywood actress Sharon Stone to sprinkle some stardust over Tbilisi at a film premiere in June.
The cost of hiring celebrities like Sting and Stone remains unknown, but officials believe it is a worthwhile investment.
“We are often asked why we spend money inviting stars and holding grand concerts,” Saakashvili remarked this month, explaining it was intended to “acquaint the whole world with our country”.
Although sponsors will finance the MTV show, officials say, questions about the alleged use of government money to stage concerts have persisted.
“Because there is so little information available to the public, it’s difficult to find out exactly how these government funds are spent or if they are wasted,” said Irma Zarnadze, who made a documentary about the issue for Tbilisi-based investigative reporting unit Studio Monitor.
The publicity-conscious Georgian president is known for using music as a political weapon.
Before the 2008 presidential elections, a promotional pop song was commissioned entitled ‘Misha is Cool’ — a reference to Saakashvili’s nickname — while local musicians sang his praises at campaign rallies.
“They have used pop music as a propaganda tool and as one of the instruments to influence people both here in Georgia and in other countries,” said Nico Nergadze, a journalist at Radio Liberty’s Georgian service.
Other stunts have included booking 1970s disco veterans Boney M to play near the frontline in the rebel region of South Ossetia, and using Georgia’s entry for the 2009 Eurovision Song Contest to poke fun at Saakashvili’s arch foe, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Iglesias’ fans however were ecstatic about the authorities’ latest showbiz venture, posting hundreds of grateful comments on MTV’s website and only complaining that other stars like Eminem and Lady Gaga weren’t invited too.