That was until last October, when Ivanishivili literally came down from the mountain.
Despite having no political experience to his name, he has managed in 10 months to consolidate the country’s disparate opposition and present the first serious challenge to President Mikheil Saakashvili in his nine-year rule — a feat alternately attributed to the billionaire’s charms and his pocketbook.
Ivanishvili’s campaign has thrown a curveball for both the United National Movement, Georgia’s ruling party, and Saakashvili himself, who has struggled to adapt to a competitor whose wealth — an estimated $6.4 billion, according to Forbes — is equal to about half the country’s gross domestic product. Ivanishvili claims he has spent $1.7 billion in Georgia during the past decade.
Polling by the independent National Democratic Institute predicts the billionaire’s coalition will garner just 12 percent of the vote in elections due Oct. 1, with 37 percent going to the ruling party and 43 percent still undecided or declining to answer. But the state’s drastic attempts to outmaneuver the tycoon by freezing his bank assets and stripping him of his Georgian citizenship have won him sympathy.
In an interview in his Tbilisi complex, Ivanishvili paints a dramatic picture of the emotional welcome he has received while campaigning in the country’s small and isolated villages.
“I travel as much as I can and meet people. People weep. . . . Hope has appeared,” he said.
Asked why he decided to enter politics, he offers a long, whimsical analogy, describing how he used to love to read but then “it became boring,” and he started to write instead.
“My main capital isn’t the money,” he says cryptically. “I respect myself, I respect my country.”
Mathias Huter, a senior analyst at Transparency International in Tbilisi, says politics in Georgia has always had an element of “the messiah coming and saving the country.” But Ivanishvili takes this metaphor to a new extreme.
The country’s biggest philanthropist, he has personally built 500 schools, 600 churches, and a state military base. In his rural home town of Chorvila, residents receive free, state-of-the-art health care in a hospital he built. Should his Georgian Dream coalition come to power, the party has promised to create a $1 billion agricultural fund, a third of which would be financed by Ivanishvili personally.
Besides the fund, however, the candidate’s platform is vague, with general promises to improve health care and tackle the 16 percent unemployment rate, just like the ruling party.