Bright lights, big city - welcome to Tbilisi

Capitalism has come to the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia in a big (screen) way.

By day, the video screens in Tbilisi's Freedom and Republic squares are dwarfed by the snarl of traffic.

But at night, when rickety Ladas, tinted-window Mercedes, and BMWs no longer terrorize pedestrians, the screens loom large over Tbilisi, casting a strange glow - and adding an incongruous touch of Times Square to this ancient city.

In ad mode, the newly installed 138 square-foot screens sell everything from toothpaste to Coca-Cola to promotions for the TV show "Desperate Housewives." In PR mode, they show government-friendly coverage, such as Ukrainian President Victor Yuschenko's recent visit to Georgia.

The rest of the time, they are the ultimate screen savers, offering a life-size display of portraits of the city.

President Bush's visit to Tbilisi last May sent the city into overdrive, repairing roads full of potholes and turning gray and brown buildings every color of the rainbow. And bucking the predictions of cynics, the government has continued to refurbish the city long after Bush left.

Sharply demarcated white lines have been painted on city streets, providing fewer excuses for recklessness. New traffic rules require drivers to wear seatbelts and to refrain from using their phones, unthinkable in a city where everyone keeps a mobile glued to one ear or dangling from their necks.

Hundreds of festivals, rallies, and demonstrations have been staged here since Soviet times. Now, the squares offer some entertainment for taxi drivers waiting for their next customers to arrive.

On Republic Square, the towering Iveria stands empty. Once a luxury hotel, the Iveria was used until last year as makeshift housing for some of Georgia's 260,000 people displaced from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Facing the screen, the Iveria is now covered by green construction netting and the banner of the company which promises to return it to greatness.

Tbilisi's citizens expect nothing less from President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has preferred to do everything on a grand scale since peacefully taking power from his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, in 2003.

It is also a sign that businesses are coming out of the shadows. Until recently, business owners were reluctant to advertise, complaining that it brought them nothing but trouble.

"Every time I advertised," says a print company owner, "within a week tax inspectors would come audit me."

But now, with a new tax code that includes a modest amnesty and tax breaks for small businesses, companies are looking to expand.

As the market improves, so does advertising.

"Every country has the advertising it deserves," says Mikho Kochakidze, country director of a European advertising festival, paraphrasing the famous quote. "The level of life is getting better, so that means that the level of advertisement is getting better also."

The rest of Georgia has remained poor, but Tbilisi is a city on the go. High-priced building complexes are constructed monthly. Luxury items are plentiful. Fitness centers catering to wealthy Georgians offer Pilates and yoga. Electricity and water shortages are fewer and farther between.

Not everyone is happy with Tbilisi's makeover. Prices have doubled since June, though salaries, many Georgians say, have largely remained the same.

Defending these reforms, newly appointed Tbilisi Mayor Gigi Ugulava says, "I could do nothing, but then nothing would change. And it should be changed."

Mr. Ugulava says that the privately owned screens will be installed all over town, and in other Georgian cities as well.

Tamriko, a Greek and Georgian teacher, remains suspicious. "Good things don't need advertising," she says. "For me, the bigger the advertisement is, the less I trust it."

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