Eagle-eyed Georgians who noticed a small electric Nissan stuck in Tbilisi traffic earlier this week could be forgiven for doing a double take.
Its driver, after all, is used to being whisked across the city in an armoured limousine with blacked-out windows, rather than sitting hunched behind the wheel of an undersized urban hatchback.
To prove a political point, President Mikheil Saakashvili drove the car, which he says is his personal vehicle paid for with his own money, to Tbilisi airport ahead of an official visit to neighbouring Azerbaijan.
Georgia has been in political limbo since Mr Saakashvili’s United National Movement lost parliamentary elections last autumn to a coalition led by eccentric billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is now Prime Minister. Although Mr Saakashvili remains President until October and retains some constitutional powers, Mr Ivanishvili’s team have called on him to step down and cede power. He was recently prevented from giving an address in parliament; when he later attempted to give the speech at the National Library, fights ensued outside. Each side has accused the other of stoking tensions and unconstructive behaviour.
Mr Saakashvili, who as president has been fond of publicity stunts, appears to have used the Nissan to deflect criticism of his ostentatious lifestyle. The new government has accused him of unacceptable extravagance, citing the palace he had built in central Tbilisi and the two private jets he purchased for official use, one of which has been taken away from him.
The Georgian President’s press service posted a video on YouTube of Mr Saakashvili and his wife getting into the vehicle in the garage of the palace before driving out into the streets of Tbilisi unaccompanied and heading for the airport. Previously, Mr Saakashvili travelled in an armoured Mercedes limo with several Jeeps of armed security accompanying him.
The video of the President’s most recent drive showed him slowing down as he got stuck in traffic and waiting patiently at a red light.
Mr Saakashvili, the subject of an assassination attempt in 2005, claims that he now travels entirely without security, and said that if anything happened, his wife is there to protect him. He said that he has spent the last month with no security, as since Mr Ivanishvili appointed a new head of the security services, elements of his guard can no longer be trusted.