The Titan of Tbilisi

Is Georgia’s elfin billionaire and new political phenomenon bigenough to take down President Mikheil Saakashvili?

I am standing in the foyer of my hotel in the Georgiancapital of Tbilisi. An unshaven young man with an enquiring expression comesup to me and asks, “Thomas?” I nod and he says the one word, “Bidzina.”

My assignation with the most talked-about man in Georgia isabout to begin.

We climb into a Toyota Landcruiser, ascend to the top of a hillin Tbilisi, and then enter a small private drive. Electronic gates slide openand we are soon outside a soaring glass-and-steel construction, a futurist castleconstructed by the Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu, surrounded by a smallforest of modern sculpture.

I am ushered into the presence of the man himself. Bidzina Ivanishviliis quite small, a little elfin, immaculately dressed, and smiling. I have neverinterviewed a billionaire before but his manner is easy. He starts by showingme the pictures on the wall: Egon Schiele, Claude Monet, Lucian Freud. Headmits that they are, in fact, high-quality copies; the originals are in London.There is a chatty simplicity about him but also huge self-confidence andself-control. 

We sit down, he under a Lucien Freud portrait, and Iask a variation on the same question he has been asked 100 times in thelast month: “What motivated you to go into Georgian politics?”

In one month, it is no exaggeration to say, Ivanishvili has turnedthe politics of his country upside down. Georgia has had a turbulent decade.First, the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003 swept aside Eduard Shevardnadze’stired old regime. Then, Mikheil Saakashvili became Europe’s youngest head ofstate at the age of 36 and embarked on a series of hair-raising modernizingreforms. The volatile Saakashvili also went head-to-head with Russia over thebreakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a confrontation that burst outinto full conflict in 2008. After defeat in the war, Saakashvili’s popularityplummeted, but he clung to power. He and his governing party slowlyrecovered the initiative and, as the next elections approached in 2012-13, theyfound themselves again in a commanding position, with a virtual monopoly over theexecutive, parliament, local government, and the media.

Enter the tycoon. After making a fortune in Russia (nowestimated by Forbes to be worth $5.5 billion), Ivanishvili retired to hishome village in central Georgia, becoming an aggressive philanthropist toschools, theaters, churches, professional artists — all without ever appearingin public. He was so private that he was dubbed the “Count of Monte Cristo.” Inan eccentric twist to the tale, his son Bera moved to Los Angeles and becameGeorgia’s most famous rapper, for a while eclipsing the fame of his father. 

Then, out of seemingly nowhere, on Oct. 7, Ivanishvili announced that he wasentering politics, challenging Saakashvili, and planned “to come to power” innext year’s elections.

When I arrived in Georgia a month later, two-thirds of allconversations were still about the Ivanishvili effect.

For the last year or so, the ten to 12 people I regularly talk toin Tbilisi (a mixture of old friends, journalists, academics, and long-timeresident foreigners) had been saying roughly the following:

“The governing party has done many good things but they aretoo focused on preserving their own power and have lost touch with the public.They confuse their PR message with reality. A lot of people are fed up — inTbilisi, by the narrowing of the democratic space, and in the countryside by thelack of jobs. But the opposition is marginalized and there is no crediblealternative.” 

Now, my friends were fascinated and energized by thischallenge to the status quo. But there was less agreement on Ivanishvilihimself. A range of opinions:

“He has re-written the rules of the game and that’s good forGeorgia.”

“I don’t like his manner. He frightens me.”

“People had become so cynical. Now they have some hope.”

“At the moment he is a one-man show. The test is whether hecan build a platform and a program.”

Ordinary Georgians I talked to were almost worryinglyenthusiastic. My very unscientific vox pop of taxi-drivers and non-political acquaintancesfound ten people out of ten supporting the businessmen. From this group, I heardone phrase repeatedly: “He has done so much for Georgia.”

The government’s initial responses to the tycoon’s demarche werehostile and self-defeating. The authorities stripped him and his wife of hisGeorgian citizenship on controversial grounds, prompting him to appeal directlyto the president for its restoration. Ivanishvili has received the support of no less than thePatriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, who in his Sunday sermon said thatthis patriot deserved his citizenship back. The government has also tried todiscredit Ivanishvili with an aggressive investigation into his Georgian bank,while pro-government media attempted to sabotage the live press conferencewhere he announced his political debut. Both efforts backfired dramatically, confoundedby a groundswell of pro-Ivanishvili support and widespread distrust towards thegovernment’s version of events.

It made for a dramatic month in Tbilisi. Something had beenlacking in Georgian public life — Ivanishvili had woken it up. But, as academicGiorgi Gogsadze told me, “It is more about the phenomenon of Ivanishvili thanthe personality.” In other words, he is seen first as an agent of change andonly second as a distinct individual.

But the personality has to matter sooner or later. And hereI am with 90 minutes to talk to the man himself.

To the “why” question he gives a long answer. He supportedthe current government on many issues and met Saakashvili many times up until2008. He financed the army and schools. But he broke with the governmentbecause he believed that Saakashvili stole the 2008 presidential election, andbegan to “study” the opposition. When he realized that they were not making abreakthrough, he decided to step in. “If the opposition could have done thisand come [to power] without my help, of course I would not have come. As theopposition can’t do it on its own, I am helping the opposition to come topower.”

He sees a fatigue in Georgian society: “These reforms are ashock for people. Every reform, every step puts people in shock.” What thegovernment has created, he says, is “a façade economy, façade everything, justa Potemkin village.” Business is actually less free than it was under Shevardnadze, he contends, because the government has such tight control ofrevenue, media, and the courts.

I raise the issue of continuity. Georgians, I say, are tiredof upheavals and want to be sure that if there is a change of regime,everything won’t start from scratch again. He agrees and says that there aremany professionals who need to keep their jobs or “even be promoted.” But thethree reforms he cites approvingly are relatively narrow ones: modernization ofthe army, and cleaning up corruption in the police force and education system.

What most alarms people about Ivanishvili is the steelycertainty with which he declares that he will triumph. Georgia, I say, does notneed another Messiah. Its last three presidents, Zviad Gamsakhurdia,Shevardnadze, and Saakashvili, have each been greeted in turn as the savior ofthe country. And each time the euphoria has yielded to disappointment when theleader in question failed to deliver.

Ivanishvili is expecting the question. “I tell my supporters ‘Don’t idealize me!'” he laughs. In his defense he points out that he haspicked two independent and well-established opposition parties as allies, inparticular that of Irakli Alasania, the pro-Western former Georgian ambassadorto the United Nations.

Yet his prescription is characteristically radical — andall about himself. He says he plans to form a new government in Georgia, changethe system — and then leave. “I will leave power quickly, I can guarantee you.You will meet me in two years’ time or later and you will see that I do notcling to power.”

Then there is the Russia question, which has polarizedGeorgia since the 2008 war. Any opposition figure who talks about improvingrelations with Russia risks being tarnished as unpatriotic by thepro-government media. Ivanishvili does his best to pick his way through thisminefield.

“One the one hand the Georgian people are hurt after theAugust war. Whoever was responsible, Russia was definitely in the wrong for thehuge aggression it perpetrated against the Georgian people,” he begins. He goeson: “On the other hand, I understand very well that we mustn’t dramatize this,we mustn’t personally curse them, as Saakashvili does. My team and I, we will beforced to immediately begin talking to them, to get out of this situation ofstagnation.” He claims that he has already begun selling off his assets inRussia, which he expects to fetch some $1.5 billion.

After our conversation, I received a tour of the building andthe art collection. In one of the biggest rooms, virtually the only piece offurniture was a Steinway piano. (“My whole family plays,” he said.) An immenseglass window revealed a soaring vista, a hulking bronze sculpture of unfolding leaves by the French artist Bernar Venet then both Saakashvili’s new presidential building and the Trinity Church,the biggest in Georgia, which Ivanishvili has financed. I couldn’t help feelingthat I wished Georgia was not so reliant on big personalities: Saakashvili, thePatriarch, and the billionaire I was standing next to.

He makes for a fascinating and enigmatic mix: Lucian Freudand the Orthodox Church, the L.A. rapper and the Patriarch, a business career inRussia and pro-Western political allies, reticence and steeliness. After 90minutes with Georgia’s new phenomenon, he seems no one’s projectbut his own; sincere, but also that his answer to a problem — inthis case a government he doesn’t like — is a one-man personalintervention is required to solve it. The program is still a work in progress.

And though it seems the Georgian political scene may benefit from a shake-up, Ifear Georgians are embracing this new phenomenon because of his money andthe hope that he can be another savior.

To put it another way, the issue is less Ivanishvili thanGeorgia itself and its expectations. It is a big test for a small country to copewith yet another larger-than-life personality, however sincere his intentionsmay be.

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