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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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