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Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia's Wild Card

Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili before his speech at his party's founding congress in Tbilisi.
Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili before his speech at his party's founding congress in Tbilisi.
Bidzina Ivanishvili likes to portray himself as a simple man from humble origins -- even if it takes a glossy, Western-produced promotional video to do it.

"We now realize that I grew up in poverty and my village was very poor. I didn't see it that way in my childhood," Ivanishvili says.

"As soon as I learned to walk, I would run barefoot everywhere and didn't even feel that I was poor. But most importantly, I grew up free and I loved my childhood."

The video is part of a sophisticated campaign to propel the 56-year-old Ivanishvili and his fledgling Georgian Dream coalition to the forefront of Georgian politics.

Georgian Dream is vying for control of the country's 150-seat parliament, which for nearly a decade has been dominated by the United National Movement of President Mikheil Saakashvili.
It remains to be seen whether voters can embrace a candidate who practices yoga, goes to bed early, and maintains a private zoo of peacocks, penguins, and zebras.

Ivanishvili, who is Georgia's richest man with an estimated personal fortune of $6.4 billion, is angling to become prime minister.

But he has also surrounded himself with ambitious, respected politicians like former UN Ambassador Irakli Alasania and Tedo Japaridze, former head of Georgia's National Security Council and an ambassador to the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

With Georgian Dream less than a year old, detractors have pointed to Ivanishvili as dangerously inexperienced.

But spokeswoman Maia Panjikidze says the coalition's impressive roster of politicians speaks volumes about Ivanishvili's political savvy.

"He did something nobody was able to do before. He unified the opposition, the healthy part of the opposition, and now the coalition consists of six political parties," Panjikidze says.

"Ivanishvili is a person who can unify people and parties who maybe did not think before about following a [single] political direction. This is something that's a real sign of experience."

Peasant Roots

Ivanishvili was born into a large peasant family in the western Georgian village of Chorvila. After earning a menial wage as a custodian in a metalworking factor, he graduated with a degree in engineering and economics from Tbilisi State University.

From there, he went on to earn a doctorate in Moscow. And by the time of the Soviet collapse, Ivanishvili had launched a successful business career in Russia, first by selling computers, and then by co-founding a bank, Rossiisky Kredit.

His Russian-made billions have stirred frequent speculation that Ivanishvili is the Kremlin's inside man in the parliamentary race, a candidate ready to sell off Georgia's political independence and return to the Moscow fold.

But Ivanishvili denies any lingering connection to Russia. He has revoked his Russian citizenship, sold off most of his Russian assets, and has spent the last 10 years living in Georgia.

(From Rags To Riches: A Life In Pictures)

Moreover, he has spent much of his fortune on philanthropy in his native country -- including a full-scale makeover for his hometown, whose buildings now boast matching tile roofs and which is home to one of the most state-of-the-art hospitals in Georgia.

"In the past 20 years Ivanishvili has done more for Georgia than anybody else," says Panjikidze. "Somebody who is thinking only about his own country cannot be the project of a foreign government."

Ivanishvili's public spending has endeared him to many ordinary Georgians, who see him as a down-to-earth native son, despite his billions.

But in a country accustomed to Saakashvili's boisterous leadership, it remains to be seen whether voters can embrace a candidate who practices yoga, goes to bed early, and maintains a private zoo of peacocks, penguins, and zebras.

Ivanishvili, who has been married to his wife Eka, for nearly 21 years, is also fiercely protective of his four children, who rarely appear in public. Two of his children are albinos, including a son, Bera, who is a rap performer.

Critics of Ivanishvili have suggested that his brief political resume may put Georgia's fragile democratic progress in peril. Saakashvili himself has argued that a vote for the United National Movement is the only way to keep the country on a forward path toward Western integration, NATO membership, and a clean break from Russia.

Not everyone agrees. Lincoln Mitchell, an associate research scholar with Columbia University's Harriman Institute, who appears in Ivanishvili's promotional video, tells RFE/RL that Saakashvili's regime has run its course, and that it is Ivanishvili who can help ease the country into its first political transition since the Rose Revolution.

"Ten years from now, if Georgia's economy is stronger and they're in NATO, that's a home run. But this [the administration's current actions] is not the path to get there," Mitchell says.

"They're better off with Ivanishvili if they want to get into NATO. Because at least then it shows that hey, they can have a transition of power. I think Alasania and Japaridze are better architects for that goal than whoever's trying doing it on the other side, and they've got a better track record."

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