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Reclusive Georgian Billionaire Philanthropist Hopes To Enter National Politics

Bidzina Ivanishvili at his residence in Paris (file photo)
Bidzina Ivanishvili at his residence in Paris (file photo)
Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, whom "Forbes" recently ranked in 185th place in its annual list of the world's wealthiest people, has announced his intention of forming a political party to participate in the parliamentary elections due in May 2012.

In a lengthy statement released on October 7, Ivanishvili cited as his motive for doing so the need to break incumbent President Mikheil Saakashvili's "total monopoly on power," and the passage last year of constitutional amendments designed to enable Saakashvili to remain in power as prime minister after the expiry in January 2013 of his second presidential term.

The Georgian authorities have now retaliated by branding Ivanishvili a stooge of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and accusing him of "trying to buy Georgia's future." The National Agency of Public Registry announced that Ivanishvili (who has pledged to surrender his Russian and French passports), is not a Georgian citizen. Should that prove to be the case, he would be barred by law from financing any Georgian political party.

Ivanishvili, now 55, is a legendary if mysterious figure. According to "Forbes," he began building his business empire in 1990 when, with partner Vitaly Malkin, he set up Rossiisky Kredit Bank. He then branched out into metals and mining and real estate, and owns a chain of drug stores in Russia. For the past 10 years, Ivanishvili has lived as a virtual recluse in his native village of Chorvila in western Georgia.

In recent years, Ivanishvili has financed hundreds of charitable and small-business ventures in Georgia and transformed his native region of Sachkhere into an oasis of prosperity in Georgia's desolate and economically moribund hinterland. He avoids publicity and has only ever given one interview, according to a thoughtful and perceptive in-depth profile of him by U.S. journalist Wendell Steavenson.

Emerging From The Shadows

Ivanishvili's aloofness until now from Georgian politics has not deterred speculation about his relations with the country's leadership. In the run-up to the January 2008 early presidential ballot, opposition Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili offered Ivanishvili the premiership in the event he was elected. (In fact he placed fourth with 5.6 percent of the vote.)

Six months later, and again in May this year, Natelashvili accused Ivanishvili of financing, and colluding with, Saakashvili. A press spokesmen for Ivanishvili's Cartu Group rejected that allegation and subsequent reports in January this year that Ivanishvili had moved his family abroad as he feared reprisals after rejecting a demand from Saakashvili for $1.5 billion.

Among the "unforgivable mistakes, large and small" that Ivanishvili imputes to Georgia's current leadership in his October 7 broadside are the crippling of the business sphere, which he claims is monopolized by Saakashvili and his close associates; systematic brutality against participants in opposition protest rallies; the widespread use of plea bargaining; and the "torrent of boasting and lies" circulated daily by media subservient to the president that "makes it difficult not just for an ordinary citizen, but for a professional analyst to differentiate between black and white."

Ivanishvili stresses that he previously ruled out any involvement in politics, but after Saakashvili's "fraudulent" reelection for a second presidential term in 2008 he began financing the opposition, and he is now convinced that he has no choice but to assume a prominent political role.

He affirms his intention to form a new political party that will align with "healthy political forces" to win an absolute majority in the May 2012 parliamentary elections, after which he intends to occupy the post of either parliament speaker or prime minister in order "to completely eradicate the elite corruption in which Saakashvili's current government is engulfed."

Ivanishvili's stated further objectives are to create an independent judiciary; to create conditions for restoring Georgia's jurisdiction over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; to create a climate conducive to foreign investment; and to set about improving relations with Russia, and with the United States and European Union. Ivanishvili estimates that it will take between two and three years to achieve all this, after which he will quit politics.

Ivanishvili further stresses the importance of expediting the emergence of civil society. To that end, he intends to create a "public information center" comprising TV and radio stations, newspapers, and websites. He affirmed his readiness to offer employment, at not less than their current salary, to any journalists who are dismissed for "impartiality and their adherence to principles."

Ivanishvili also said in his October 7 statement he would sell his Russian assets, which he estimated account for one-third of his total wealth.

Lukewarm Reaction

Initial reactions to Ivanishvili's declaration of intent were mostly muted. Parliament deputy Nika Tsiklauri of Saakashvili's United National Movement (EEM) commented dismissively to Caucasus Press that Ivanishvili "apparently thinks money can buy anything," including political influence.

Opposition Free Georgia leader Kakha Kukava told journalists he saw nothing unacceptable in Ivanishvili's statement and would not rule out cooperating with him.

Our Georgia--Free Democrats leader Irakli Alasania, whose recent withdrawal has triggered the disintegration of the group of six opposition parties campaigning for an alternative to the authorities' proposals for election law reform, acknowledged that he has heard "much that is good" about Ivanishvili, but does not know him personally. Alasania said it was "too early" to comment on the possibility of aligning with him.

Bacho Kikabidze, director-general of the embattled TV station Maestro, one of two that Ivanishvili expressed an interest in acquiring, told journalists he would consider an offer from Ivanishvili, but has not yet received one. Former Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli is also reputedly trying to buy a 50 percent stake in Maestro, according to Caucasus Press on September 20.

Only the radical opposition People's Representative Assembly greeted Ivanishvili's announcement with unequivocal enthusiasm. It issued a statement on October 10 welcoming his decision as giving "a strong impulse to the start of healthy political processes," and noting that his political program coincides fully with its own.

Ivanishvili has not yet reacted to today's allegations that he is acting as Moscow's cat's paw, but he may do so on October 14, when the Georgian Public Broadcaster has made available airtime for him to field questions from journalists about his plans.

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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