Billionaire challenges Georgia’s leader

September 18, 2012

For eight years, Bidzina Ivanishvili has spent much of his time looking down on Tbilisi from a $50 million glass and stainless steel fortress, his futuristic home-cum-office perched high above the city’s medieval skyline.

A billionaire who accrued most of his wealth in Russia in the 1990s, Ivanishvili has been content to live mostly unseen, amassing an art collection — Lichtenstein, Lucian Freud, Damien Hirst — and quietly spreading his wealth across Georgia through charitable vehicles.

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.

Where Ivanishvili is stronger is in his attack on Saakashvili’s democratic record, which he compares to Tbilisi buildings, whose facades are constantly repainted but whose foundations are crumbling on the inside.

“It’s the facade democracy of Saakashvili, and everything is clear in the construction,” he said. “Saakashvili is holding on to only the fact that he is a democrat. If [the West] negates this, then he won’t have any resources, internal or external.”

A darling of the West after he was swept to power by the Rose revolution of 2003, Saakashvili has been praised abroad for cracking down on corruption in Georgia’s police force, building up the country’s infrastructure and making government more efficient. At home, however, his profile has been tarnished in recent years after the use of rubber bullets and tear gas at an opposition protest. In the current campaign, the opposition has documented widespread use of tactics that favor the ruling party, which has kept a strong grip on power.

While support for Ivanishvili may not yet threaten the incumbent, his entrance into the race has animated the state and ruling party.

At the start of the year, the billionaire had his Georgian citizenship revoked on a technicality, and has been forced to pay $45 million in fines under claims he broke campaign finance laws. When Ivanishvili initially refused to pay the fines, his lender, Cartu Bank, was temporarily seized by the state and began handing out disastrous property loans, which Ivanishvili estimates cost the lender $115 million.

Chiora Taktakishvili, a spokeswoman for UNM, the ruling party, counters that the prosecutor’s office has acted completely within the law. He takes aim at Ivanishvili’s gift-giving tendencies, claiming that Georgian Dream volunteers have been handing out fliers where people could write down a “Georgian dream” that cost less than $600 — implying that a vote for the opposition would be materially rewarded.

“I feel that Mr Ivanishvili cannot differentiate the principles used when working in business and in politics and does not understand that politics require more transparency,” Taktakishvili said.

The ruling party has also tried to portray Ivanishvili as a pawn of Russia, Georgia’s erstwhile enemy to the north.

While Ivanishvili has spoken openly of wanting to reopen trade between Russia and Georgia, halted since the 2008 war, he stresses that it was no coincidence that he decided to leave Russia when Vladimir Putin came to power. “There was more democracy under Yeltsin,” he says, referring to the late Russian president.

Ivanishvili’s largess and outsider status have found him support among voters who are sick of the volatile Saakashvili, whose decision to plunge Georgia into war with Russia in 2008 was seen as rash. But some are also attracted to his flamboyant image.

“Bidzina is the only man who doesn’t care for politics,” said David Tarchiya, a 58-year-old farmer from the country’s agricultural belt. “He is doing this because he loves this country, this people, without limits.”

— Financial Times

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