Who is Bidzina Ivanishvili?

Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of what appears to be the winning coalition in Georgia’s parliamentary election yesterday, is Georgia’s wealthiest man, with an alleged net worth of $6.4 billion, but until he formed his opposition group last year, however, Ivanishvili was not an incredibly well-known public figure.

Now, however, as the head of what is expected to be the largest group in Georgia’s parliament, the Georgian Dream — Democratic Georgia party (k’art’uli ots’neba–demokratiuli sak’art’velo, ქართული ოცნება–დემოკრატიული საქართველო), Ivanishvili (pictured above) is set to become the most important political player in Georgia.

Diplomats from Brussels to Berlin and from Moscow to Washington, D.C. are now attempting to discern where Bidzina hopes to take Georgia.

Although the small nation in the Caucuses has a population of just 4.5 million, it is an incredibly strategic country and has played an outsized role in world affairs.  That role has been especially outsized since current president Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in 2003 in the wake of the ‘Rose Revolution’ that ushered former president Eduard Shevardnadze out of power and brought to Georgia a new era of legal and democratic reforms, however imperfect, and a liberalized and dynamic economy where corruption has been much reduced.

Saakashvili has pushed aggressively for his country to be a member of both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United States and Europe both consider Georgia a vital element in energy geopolitics as a conduit for oil and gas from Russia.  Russia, meanwhile, has had frosty relations with Saakashvili from the start — Russian president Vladimir Putin’s administration imposed an embargo on mineral water, wine and other agricultural products on Georgia in 2006, and the two countries clashed in a small war in 2008 over the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

So since Saakashvili conceded defeat to Ivanishvili’s coalition earlier Tuesday, the entire world — to say nothing of Georgia — is now left wondering what Ivanishvili actually wants to do with Georgia’s domestic and foreign policy after a polarizing campaign that was waged mostly against the excesses and problems of Saakashvili’s current government.

The world will have some time to gauge Ivanishvili’s agenda — although he and his Georgian Dream will now direct the selection of a new prime minister, Saakashvili will retain much of the government’s power until the end of his term.  So for at least the next year — the next presidential election is set for October 2013 — Saakashvili, however weakened, will still call the shots.  In late 2013, however, under constitutional reforms agreed in 2010, much of the executive power in Georgia’s government will flow to the prime minister.  Accordingly, Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream are set to assume real power, eventually.

Ivanishvili is the youngest of five children, who grew up the poor son of a miner in Chorvila in western Georgia.  He made his fortune in Russia like many oligarchs in the post-Soviet era — by buying formerly state-owned assets on the cheap from the new Russian government of president Boris Yeltsin in banking and then in the metals industry.  Until last year, when he announced his political ambitions, he had been a quiet, if not necessarily ‘shadowy’ figure in Georgian life, content to settle in a glass-and-steel palace (designed by cutting-edge Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu) overlooking Tbilisi,  engaged in philanthropic projects throughout his native Georgia and especially Chorvila, where Ivanishvili has lavished money on the local residents — a move that some have compared to Bill Gates-style philanthropy and others have called 21st-century feudalism.

And yes, he owns zebras and other exotic pets, and yes, two of his four children are albinos, one of whom is a rapper.

But who is Bidzina Ivanishvili — and what is his vision for Georgia?

The best place to start may be with a profile in Forbes from March 2012 (read it all), which is the source of many of the details I’ve seen today in the media about Ivanishvili:

The best way to fathom the influence and impact Bid­zina Ivanishvili has in the former Soviet republic of Georgia would be to imagine that a businessman worth $8 trillion—Ivanishvili’s $6 billion net worth is half of Georgia’s GDP—had established a statewide system of philanthropic patronage in, say, West Virginia and the whole state was subservient to him. He has paid to repair the state university in Tbilisi and refurbish its biggest theaters. His name is on national parks, ski resorts and medical clinics.

Ivanishvili returned to Georgia shortly before 2003’s Rose Revolution after living, first in Russia, then in France, and he was an initial supporter — politically as well as financially — of Saakashvili’s project for Georgia:

Three years ago the two most powerful men in the country broke off their relationship. Ivanishvili says he and his people have been harassed by the government ever since. His decision to enter politics and become a public citizen may just be for his own protection. But Ivanishvili has an even more fundamental quibble with Saakashvili, and it is a quintessentially Georgian one. “He doesn’t understand what love is,” he says, completely seriously. “How can a person like that rule a country?

Earlier last year, however, despite renouncing his Russian citizenship, Saakashvili’s government tried to strip him of his current Georgia citizenship on the grounds that he also holds French citizenship, although the crisis defused when Parliament passed a law allowing Ivanishvili to run because he’s an EU citizen.  In the same piece, Ivanishvili had some harsh words for Putin, despite the fact that Ivanishvili has campaigned on the notion of less strained relations with Georgia’s large neighbor to the north:

He says he hasn’t been in Russia in ten years and recently renounced his Russian citizenship. “When Putin came to power I started packing my bags,” he tells me, suddenly getting nervous for saying that to a reporter because, if Ivanishvili becomes prime minister, “I’ll have to work with him.”

Even then, Ivanishvili seemed to be making up policy on the spot — and not necessarily in a way that respects the rule of law:

“In a year, I guarantee you—I’ve never given such guarantees to anyone before—in a year I will build a pure democracy and independent courts here,” he says, with a Georgian’s tendency to exaggerate. I ask him how he plans to achieve such a task in such a short period of time. “Very easy,” he says, before flashing that other ­national trademark: ruthlessness. “You have to jail one minister—two, max—to show everyone that there will be no forgiveness. Show that there’s political will up there, and it will all line up quickly. We need two, three years for a European-style system.” He adds, “But the economy—the economy will take longer to build.”

Sure enough, Shaun Walker notes in Foreign Policy today that Ivanishvili’s debut is already leaving the international press somewhat skeptical about the depth of Ivanishvili’s agenda:

In a long meeting with the media in a sweaty room at Georgian Dream headquarters on Tuesday, Oct. 2, Ivanishvili rambled, repeated himself, appeared to make up policy on the spot, and accused a reporter from a major international news agency of being a stooge for his opponent, President Mikheil Saakashvili. He was also oblivious of the fact that Georgian law requires Saakashvili, as president, to approve the prime minister’s nomination, at least until the Georgian Constitution changes next year. Initially, he argued forcefully with journalists that this was incorrect, before later conceding the point.

It was an unnerving performance that might give people some cause to wonder just who the man is who has benefited from the wave of popular fury against Saakashvili’s reforming but authoritarian rule, and what kind of government he might go on to lead.

Walker contrasts Ivanishvili’s call on Saakashvili to resign immediately with the ‘surprisingly magnanimous’ concession speech Saakashvili delivered earlier in the day, and points to the mishmash and disjointed press conference as an omen that the Georgian Dream may yet turn into a nightmare.

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