Saturday, August 23, 2014


Georgia's Reclusive Richest Man Rewrites Saakashvili's Political Script

Reporters follow a Tbilisi press conference by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is seen on a big screen in the background, on November 1.
Reporters follow a Tbilisi press conference by billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is seen on a big screen in the background, on November 1.
It seemed for a while that the path to Georgia's 2012 parliamentary elections would be smooth and uneventful. President Mikheil Saakashvili's increasingly ruthless United National Movement was cruising relentlessly toward a convincing triumph against a divided and largely feckless opposition.

And then came billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

"These elections will be absolutely different, and Saakashvili and his people should not harbor any illusions that the same old story will be repeated again," the reclusive 55-year-old financier said after emerging unexpectedly from his rural retreat in the village of Chorvila last month to announce his entry into politics. "In my view, reality today is such that even his own mother would not vote for Saakashvili."

He went on to say he was "very well aware of the ways in which his violence affects not just the Georgian people, but his own inner circle, too. Saakashvili is not going to be able to collect the number of votes necessary to carry out falsification."

Within weeks of his Chorvila arrival on the scene, Ivanishvili had formed the Georgian Dream movement that he says he will lead to victory in the coming polls.

In a personal journal produced for RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Ivanishvili says that "it wasn't an easy decision" to enter the political fray but that he felt compelled by "the grave situation the country."

Open Season

The campaign has gotten off to a somewhat rocky start. Ivanishvili's positions have been trickling out slowly. And a November 1 press conference nearly got out of hand with reporters shouting questions nearly at random as Ivanishvili and his press secretary, Irakli Tripolski, struggled to control the chaos.

And the nascent campaign -- and Ivanishvili himself -- have come under harsh, even underhanded attack from Saakashvili and his supporters, although the president himself has not even mentioned Ivanishvili by name.

First, Saakashvili's government stripped him of his Georgian citizenship when he announced publicly that he had not yet renounced his French and Russian citizenships but intended to do so. Ivanishvili is appealing Saakashvili's order, but if it is upheld, he will be barred from running for office or heading or financing any political movement.

In addition, police raided a branch of his Cartu Bank and accused it of money laundering. And Ivanishvili blames journalists from state media for trying to sabotage his debut press conference.

Giorgi Gabashvili suggests Ivanishvili is tied too closely to Moscow.
Giorgi Gabashvili suggests Ivanishvili is tied too closely to Moscow.
Saakashvili backers like United National Movement legislator Giorgi Gabashvili, meanwhile, have been using state-controlled television to hammer home the idea that Ivanishvili is a puppet of Moscow.

"To own and manage assets worth several billion dollars in Russia inevitably leads to that person's close connections with the Kremlin," Gabashvili says. "And if and when this connection enters politics, then, of course, this becomes a factor. Nobody is so naive as to see that someone has become active in Georgia's political life and has billions in Russia -- and not consider this a factor."

Ivanishvili has said he intends to sell his Russian assets.

Spotlight Attracting Support

The attacks only appear to be galvanizing support for the reclusive billionaire. In one week alone, for example, some 5,000 people opened accounts with Cartu Bank in a coordinated effort to express solidarity with Ivanishvili.

The authorities may well have good reason to be alarmed: Ivanishvili is not your average billionaire. Georgia's richest man, with a fortune estimated by "Forbes" at $5.5 billion, Ivanishvili has, until now, shunned the limelight. He earned his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, but 10 years ago returned to Georgia and settled in his native village of Chorvila, about 150 kilometers west of Tbilisi.

He had previously given only one interview, a long talk with the Russian business daily "Vedomosti" in 2005. In that interview he emphasized his desire for privacy: "I am definitely not a public person," he said, "but that is only because of my character. I don't like to meet with journalists or participate in public events or attend parties. You have to put on a mask in such places and I can't stand formalities. I am a materialist and I don't believe in life after death. And life is short -- I don't want to do anything to restrict my freedom. I really don't like being the center of attention. I don't like holidays and never even celebrate my own birthday."

But he has been far from idle over the years. Ivanishvili created a charitable foundation that has quietly spent millions on projects largely aimed at bolstering Georgian culture. He has restored churches and theaters across the country. He provides pensions to Georgian academics and cultural figures.

Yet a profile of Ivanishvili in "Prospect" magazine last year quoted many of those who had benefited from his largess as saying they had never met Ivanishvili or had any direct contact with him. His name is not on any of the projects he funded.

Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks with Reuters journalists at his residence in Tbilisi in October.
Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks with Reuters journalists at his residence in Tbilisi in October.

He has been particularly generous with Chorvila, rebuilding homes and public buildings, repairing roads, and building a state-of-the-art hospital that provides free health care for locals. He pays pension supplements and monthly bonuses to teachers and doctors. Until 2009, he paid the utility bills for 60,000 residents. According to "Prospect," he donates $2,000 for expenses whenever there is a wedding or funeral in town. Critics, however, have accused him of fostering dependence and stifling initiative.

Mixed Reactions

Since entering Georgia's political fray, Ivanishvili has said his only purpose is to carry out systemic reforms that will enable Georgia to develop as a free-market democracy. He has said he does not want the presidency and only intends to hold office for the two or three years he believes are necessary for reform. Then he would like to return to his philanthropic work.

Irakli Alasania, the head of the opposition Our Georgia-Free Democrats party who has been named by Ivanishvili as a potential political ally, applauds Ivanishvili's appearance on the political scene.

"Georgian society has long missed such debates, such candid talk," Alasania says. I think today Mr. Ivanishvili very clearly and honestly told the public just why he made this decision and why he is entering politics, and what is his main aim -- together with his partners. [We want] a real opportunity for competition to finally emerge in the country -- competition in politics and in business. And Georgian society, I think, saw this very plainly and clearly."

Other observers are not so sure. Deputy parliament speaker Levan Vepkvadze of the Christian Democrats, a nominal opposition party that is largely supportive of the authorities, was unimpressed by Ivanishvili's press debut.

"I can't say I got the impression we are dealing with a grounded politician," Vepkvadze says. "For starters, politics is quite different from business. And also it seems that the management that is around him is quite weak. A lot of people were calling me yesterday, saying, 'This man might have indeed made millions, but he could not manage one single press conference? So how is he going to manage the whole country?' It seems that this was the impression that one segment of society got."

Ivanishvili's positions have been emerging slowly and in piecemeal fashion. He favors Georgia's course toward European integration but believes relations with Russia can and must be improved. At the same time, he says Georgia has "no alternative" but to seek eventual membership of NATO.

Political Novice?

But Ivanishvili's main emphasis has been on more systemic reform. "We have to start the process of creating a genuinely independent judiciary -- and this process should be an irreversible one," Ivanishvili says. "Media must be freed. [We need to] create an environment that will be attractive to investors. Jobs creation will be under constant scrutiny -- and will represent a central aim of our policies."

In some of his written statements, critics might be tempted to conclude that Ivanishvili believes throwing money around is his solution to any problem. He offered to buy two television stations that he accused of being under Saakashvili's control -- while swearing he would offer them complete editorial independence -- and promised jobs to any journalists in state media who want to join his campaign.

With his citizenship case still up in the air -- although Ivanishvili insists he has an unspecified back-up plan if he loses his appeals -- it remains to be seen what role he will play in the coming campaign.

Pikria Chikhradze, of the opposition New Rightists party, worries about Ivanishvili's inexperience. "It is one thing to have political experience -- say, when it comes to your relations with the media. But when a person displays such big ambitions, he has to have well-formulated positions about certain issues," she says.

"On one hand, I quite like it when he says that he does not know everything and will have to learn about many things. But when it comes to fundamental issues -- even here he says he will think them through at a later stage, and discuss them with experts. This I do not like," Chikhradze says. "It seems that the only thing he knows for sure is that he will obtain a parliamentary majority; everything else will be decided later."

In his journal for RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Ivanishvili admits that he still has a lot to learn about politics: "I need real feedback and criticism so that I don't make mistakes in the future."

written by RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian Service
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Comment Sorting
by: Eugenio from: Vienna
November 10, 2011 18:02
Misha Saakashvili is a real democrat: once there is a candidat who could challenge him in an elections, he just deprives him of Georgian citizenship (like he did to Ivanishvili). I would say that Misha is setting a bench-mark for the entire region here - others should learn from him how really democratic elections should be organized :-).

by: potgeo
November 11, 2011 07:16
New rule for Georgians!

No new candidate for presidency, Saakashvili is the deity who should lead the county to the end - either his or the country itself!

Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely - this statement couldn't be more right for Georgia, even more - Saakashvili and his party turned absolute power into Omnipotence - an unlimited power, he can do absolutely anything, even logically impossible in accord with his own desires, he intervenes in the lives of his citizens by suppressing the law, Constitution, moral values, democratic principles, traditions, in attempt to create

rule of man in absence of rule of law.

The idealist side of Rose Revolution - an island of democracy in the sea of Autocrats - was already fading after November events in 2007, but after Ivanishvili stepped into political scene, it became obvious, that Saakashvili and National party forfeited any moral and constitutional rights to lead the country.

Ivanishvili has an ability , that incorporates both political and moral base to change Georgian political reality in the compliance of law and Constitution.

by: michael from: germany
November 11, 2011 10:30
this man ivanishvili is already very mighty. at the top of the state this will definitely too much power! and he is no politician nor is he a democrate. he learned that he can get anything with his money but that is not the way how a modern democrazy must be run. he has "bought" the people of his village (now his home army) and he "bought" many artists and other people standing in the focus of society. He paid for Sameba so that even the georgian church won't oppose him (although he maid unreligious remarks about life after death).

His "good deeds" turn out to be strategic.
In Response

by: potgeo
November 11, 2011 12:08
What's your point, Michael? Ivanishvili (who isn't a citizen) has more power then Saakashvili? Where are you coming from in your statement that Ivanishvili is not a democrat? What do you know about him besides the news-lies from Rustavi2 and Qronika. Make your arguments more substantial, otherwise one would think that you are a part of the black PR campaign against new political figure led by Saakashvili regime
In Response

by: Andrew from: Tbilisi
November 11, 2011 19:45
I agree with potgeo and Rasto on this one.

Ivanishvili has done a huge amount for Georgia, without fanfare, self aggrandizement, or in most cases even being named.

He is unfairly labelled a "Russian puppet" for saying the government fell into the trap the Russians set for it in 2008, he has also heavily criticized the Russians for their illegal support for the separatists one might add.

His desire to make Georgia a country firmly within the western (and by this I mean Anglo Saxon) orbit of liberal democracy, with a distribution of power between parliament and president, an independent judiciary, and an independent media should be applauded by all but real Russian stooges.

He has also rejected the use of street protests, rightly saying that they play into the hands of those who want Georgia to fail in its attempt to institute true democracy. Particularly the Russians.

And Michael from Germany, given that your former chancellor Shroeder signed dodgy deals with the Russians over gas and pipelines that stab your neighbors in the back, then lost an election in part because of those decisions, then went straight to work for Putin, oops, I mean Gazprom (right 1st time), in a true perversion of democracy, well your criticism stinks of hypocrisy.
In Response

by: Rasto from: London
November 11, 2011 12:39
From your comment it looks like that the entire purpose of Ivanishvili actions i.e. funding building of Sameba - almost 9 years ago during Shevarnadze reign and helping local people in his region where he settled 10 years ago were carried out entirely for the purpose of fighting Saakashvili government in 2011.:):):)
That man must be a prophet if he predicted this political situation in Georgia and have made these steps so purposefully.:):):).It seems that your comment lacks a logic, especially when ity is known that ths person has been not interested in polics almost his entire last decade of life spent in Georgia. I have been following the politics in Georgia quite closely through my relatives and one has to see that smaller or larger scandals caused by current Georgian politicians are floating regularly on the surface almost every month. I am not surpirsed that someone who has the potential to trigger the change in the country where he lives and country that he loves is actually willing to do so by supporting oposition and namely IMHO the best candidate namely Mr. Alasania. I am for the man.
In Response

by: Solomon from: Ternali
November 11, 2011 14:13
Michael (not Misha? by any chance) - please teach us how to run "modern democrazy" when the president is crazy?
whatever you say about buying artists - and I will extend that list to journalists, "experts", businessmen, election commission, judges, school directors, any level functuioners - that is VERILY SO, INDEED - But for Misha Saakashvili! He and his party first made all population very poor, and left only onw way for survival - to become their slaves or to emigrate!
President Saakashvili spents millions for his Caligulian taste festivities, stupid architectural projects and painting Georgia's facade-democracy pink. You either are blind or beneficiary of this propaganda.
Misha is another Mubaraq or Gaddafi with just one but - he talks and prizes western values and democracy a lot! But only talks - his deeds are very different. You can learn about then from here (needs update for last year, sorry for that. Hope, Hague Internationl court will do that soon)
In Response

by: Nick from: Columbus
November 18, 2011 13:00
Love your comment couldn't reflect the truth more acuratly. Nobody makes such a radical lifestyle changing decision if it wasn't for the great love and pain for his country. All these old political f**ks talking about him having no expirence is just garbage. What they really mean is that he is not skilled in lies an deception, cause that's what politics boil down too. As the georgian youth, we are obliged to help and support this Ivanishvili in any way possible.
In Response

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
December 08, 2011 08:55
And "strategic", Michel, is never ending war
of Russian expansion and "biological" war
to breed Russians in neighboring lands,
starting with Georgia.

Ivanishvili already gave away his secret agenda by choosing Alasania!
Alasania was "frozen" in 2008, during
Russian invasion (it took my chronology,, sent to
McCain and to UN to stop Russians).
Georgia might be "frozen" by Ivanishvili
and Alasania, if Russia will invade again
and I would be dead or kidnapped at the time by Russia and old USSR Quisling's Babilon -
they already working on both outcomes
for many years and just now...

by: Ben
November 12, 2011 12:10
Ivanishvily,Navalny-rewrite political script? Who are behind this figures?
Who in America play games by confusing it`s friends and enemies?

by: George from: Nantes
November 14, 2011 02:59
Looks like Georgia has no decent politicians at all? Sakaashvili is pathetic, this guy is probably following some NWO policy and thus is trying to worm his way into Georgian politics to get things back on track, and that Burjanadze is a Russian puppet (well, maybe this guy too?)

Tragic for a small country that pretends to be democratic while secretly attempting to murder its neighbors on a continuous basis.

No wonder Georgia is the joke of Europe right now.

by: chokha from: germany
November 14, 2011 12:23
Is this man a "Putinist" or not? Nobody can know for sure. But it's not the point anyway. He would have far too much power in his hands at the top of the state.
It would end desastrous for the country.
I. should stay at home and help the people but he should stay away from politics.

And he is a liar. He said he'd never enter the political stage. And then came this sudden turn around?
Why? And why now?

And of course, all his previous moves were strategically planned. He didn't spend his money just for fun. Now he is going to harvest.

Today Ilia II. (I respect him very much) said I. should get back his georgian citizanship. Well, thats another succes of his strategic donating (for building churches).

I. at the top of the georgian state will be a desaster. Let him run an NGO, so that he can work for the benefit of his (?) country. As Premier or President he will be the "undertaker" of Georgia.

And by the way, will there be a way to make him step back from power once he sits on the throne???
In Response

by: Nick from: Columbus oh
November 18, 2011 13:10
Too much power??? What are you talking about do you even realize that it's hard to have more power than saakashvili and still ruin ur country? Somebody who has 5.5 billion does not enter the political stage to make money or have power. Because he won't get any of that from a small country with crappy economy.
The reason he decided to show up now is plain and obvious, because the current govement has driven us into desparate times and desparate times need desparete measures. At the moment it is desparete enough for him to give up everything he charished his whole life long, for his country! But you are oblivious to it. Just as people in isreal failed to see a savior in jesus, people fail to see the saving he can do for georgia

by: George from: Warsaw
November 14, 2011 19:56
chokha, this guy has entered politics because that guy (Misha) is the pathologic liar and misuses power - he brought Georgia disaster in terms of politics, economic and societal development. Georgian courts are ruled by prosecution, media is propaganda machine. and watch this - these are Saakashvili's party activists. This is how ruling party rules Georgia - by falcification and pushing voting buttons for others. Watch the guy who has "servant" man for voting - that busy man is head of Misha's majority faction:
In Response

by: chokha from: germany
November 15, 2011 07:32
Again: who can make him leave the throne once he is sitting there? Who could ever stop him? That is too much power in one hand. And that will be the desaster for Georgia.
It's good that Saakashvili leaves the office. In part he made a good job, in part he made fatal mistakes. A new face should enter the scene to push forward the modernisation of this beautiful country. But with I. Georgia will only fall back in the bad old times: corruption, zarism, disintegration...

by: Isoruku from: US
December 03, 2011 18:47
"Increasingly ruthless," Mr Coalson? Is this a news article or an Op-Ed?

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