Georgia's richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has thrown himself into politics, taking on what he says is the "authoritarian" rule of his country's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, in the October 1 parliamentary elections. Is Ivanishvili the saviour his supporters say he is, or a Russian stooge as Saakashvili's allies claim? Leo Cendrowicz reports from Tbilisi
He lives in the hills high above Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, in a futuristic glass and steel fortress that is almost deliberately styled like the lair of a James Bond villain. Scattered around his garden are sculptures by the likes of Anish Kapoor, Henry Moore and Zaha Hadid, as well as lemurs, penguins, kangaroos and albino flamingos. His reported $6.4 billion bank balance is equivalent to around half of the country's GDP, but until recently he was a mystery to local Georgians. Yet billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili is running for office, and doing so as a man of the people. Welcome to Georgian politics.
From Silvio Berlusconi to Mitt Romney, plutocrats are nothing new in politics, but Ivanishvili gives the practice the post-Soviet, rags-to-riches twist. He insists he is a reluctant politician, but is compelled to enter the arena to fight the "authoritarian" rule of Mikheil Saakashvili, who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution. "This government is very dangerous," he says. "Many people are unlawfully jailed. There are shadowy killings. I realise there are threats but I am not going to back down." With Georgians going to the polls on Monday, October 1 to elect a new Parliament, Ivanishvili is hoping to unseat Saakashvili, a one-time ally.
Ivanishvili is a political neophyte, but since launching his political campaign last October, he has consolidated the country's disparate opposition groups into the Georgian Dream coalition. Georgian Dream, named after a song by the tycoon's Los Angeles-based rapper son, Bera, is now the most credible challenge yet to the elite that has governed country for the past nine years.
Holding forth to a few journalists in his office, the slim, 56-year-old - wearing dark jeans, an open-necked check shirt and Brioni blazer - carries a shy smile, and plays nervously with the business cards on the table in front of us. Speaking hesitantly, and looking frequently to his aide for help, he is far from a natural politician. "I'm new to politics, but known to the Georgian people. They know me and trust me," Ivanishvili says.
Yet, Ivanishvili seems genuinely outraged by what he sees as Saakashvili's drift towards dictatorship. "It is not so much the rule of law here but the rule of one man," he says. "Over the past two years, it has been obvious that Georgia was self destructing, under his authoritarianism."
If anyone can topple Saakashvili, it is Ivanishvili. "Unlike previous opposition contenders, Ivanishvili has two attributes that made him hard for the governing elite to contend with: money and power," says Thomas de Waal, a senior associate in the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment. De Waal says there are question marks about Ivanishvili--whether people are attracted by his money rather than his personality, and whether he has a proper programme. But nonetheless, he says Ivanishvili offers a welcome challenge to an otherwise entrenched elite. "Georgia has become a relatively benign one-party state with few checks and balances. In this context competition is healthy," De Waal says.
Forbes magazine ranks Ivanishvili as the world's 153rd richest person. The walls inside his home are decorated with canvases by Egon Schiele, Andy Warhol, Claude Monet and Lucian Freud. Well, almost: Ivanishvili admits that they are replicas, with the originals safe in a London bank vault for insurance purposes. It was also Ivanishvili who paid $95.2 million for Picasso's 'Dora Maar With Cat' at Sotheby's in 2006, a purchase that was until recently shrouded in mystery.
The son of a miner, Ivanishvili was born in the Georgian village of Chorvila. He made his money in Russia in banking, retail and property in the 1990s, but left for France in 2002 (which gave him a passport) and, in 2003, returned to Georgia. Back home, he settled into quiet philanthropy, spending millions on roads, schools, churches and theatres; bankrolling the police and army; and building 500 schools and 600 churches, including Tbilisi's gold-domed cathedral. Though invisible, he became hugely popular.
Why the foray into politics? At one time, the billionaire and the president were close, but Ivanishvili says relations were severed in early 2008, when he felt Saakashvili stole that year's presidential election.
There is no love lost. Last October, three days after Ivanishvili finally emerged from the shadows to enter politics, he had his citizenship revoked because of his French passport, making him ineligible to stand for parliament. The government eventually changed the electoral code to let him run, but Ivanishvili will not be a candidate. He has, however, indicated he expects to become prime minister if the Georgian Dream is successful. "I'll do it maybe one or two years, and then leave politics and go into civil society," he says.
Ivanishvili also complains that of government harassment, media bias and seizure of some of business assets. He is backed by rights groups Amnesty International and Transparency International Georgia, which have both accused Saakashvili of conducting a deliberate intimidation campaign of opposition activists (citing physical reprisals detention and arrest, and voter bribing).
A more subtle attack has been to portray Ivanishvili as a political plant: government officials point to his years in Russia, and make suspicious noises about him being in the pocket of President Vladimir Putin. This is a potentially explosive accusation: it is just four years since the 2008 war that brought Russian tanks onto Georgian soil. Russian forces still occupy two breakaway provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Ivanishvili is mindful of the raw sensitivity of the invasion.
But he hits back at the innuendoes, saying they are crude smears. He has sold all his remaining Russian businesses, including Russian Credit and his 2% of Gazprom shares, for a total of $1.7 billion, and surrendered his Russian passport. " Saakashvili's says I am Putin's puppet, but I have never met Putin. I have not been to Russia for nine years. Saakashvili's actions against me show his panic," Ivanishvili says.
As for the Russian occupation, Ivanishvili condemns it while also blaming Saakashvili. "Saakashvili played into Russian hands. If he thought he could beat Russia, he was a fool," he says. "He was provoked into this. It could have been resolved so much better. Now Russian troops occupy 20% of Georgian territory."
But is Saakashvili really the demon Ivanishvili portrays him as? Georgia after the collapse of the Soviet Union faced a grave risk of becoming a failed state sinking in corruption and torn apart by a warlords. Before Saakashvili, staples like electricity, television, roads and running water could not be taken for granted, even in Tbilisi.
After the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili's young and dynamic administration pushed through transformational socio-economic reforms that built up the country's infrastructure, slashed bureaucracy and police corruption, and attracted foreign investment. Business has been brisk and the country is a lot more modern and richer today. Tbilisi looks very much like a Central European capital, which is more than can be said for the cities in Georgia's neighbours.
But Georgia is not quite the democratic oasis Saakashvili suggests either. After nine years in power, Saakashvili has adopted what Ivlian Haindrava from the Tbilisi-based Republican Institute describes as a policy of "modernization first, democracy later": the mere trappings of pluralism flatter an authoritarianism seemingly modelled on Putin's regime. And like Putin, Saakashvili is seen as hanging onto power after his constitutionally-limited two presidential terms in 2013 to take on the newly-strengthened position of prime minister. A scandal earlier in September involving shocking videos of prisoners being tortured and sexually abused suggests some things have not changed - even if the authorities did respond by sacking a senior prisons chief.
Amanda Paul, an analyst at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, says that other things Georgia's courts lack independence and the parliament is often more than a rubber stamp. "However, there is no denying that he has transformed the country with Georgia becoming a model for the fight against corruption," she says. "Tbilisi ranks as the safest capital on the European continent with Georgian police being ranked the fifth least corrupt in the world. Not bad for a country that only 10 years ago had one of the most corrupt police forces in the world."
Local polling suggests Saakashvili's ruling allies are still well ahead of Georgian Dream, by around 55% to 33%. The two blocks are, in fact, remarkably close ideologically: both have free market, pro-NATO, reform-minded platforms. But what makes the difference are their leaders, and their perceived powers, both political and financial.
Speaking to a crowd in Zugdidi in western Georgia last week, Ivanishvili characterized the election in stark, moralist terms. "We should make a choice between good and evil on October 1," he said. It recalled the hyperbolic words of Saakashvili as he mounted his bid for power in 2003, that it was "the final battle between good and evil." While Ivanishvili may represent a breath of fresh air, he should remember that this is exactly what people said about Saakashvili in 2003.