Bidzina Ivanishvili: The billionaire with a Georgian dream

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Bidzina Ivanishvili was known as Georgia’s reclusive billionaire, his fortune built from Russian assets, and with a private zoo and art-filled glass fortress among his toys. Now he’s emerged from the shadows to challenge the country’s leader. His personal fortune outstrips the state budget, so why is he bothering? And is he Tbilisi’s saviour, or just Putin’s patsy? Shaun Walker joins Ivanishvili on the campaign trail to find out

'There are eight different breeds of peacock," says Bidzina Ivanishvili, as an albino specimen struts purposefully across our path and into a eucalyptus grove. "I have them all." On our tour of his vast summer retreat on Georgia's Black Sea coast, we also encounter a flock of flamingos, a kaleidoscopic collection of several dozen parrots, and Zelda the pet zebra, who gratefully munches on carrots that a lackey brings us to feed her.

Such an exotic menagerie is somewhat incongruous in an area where the primary non-livestock animal is the stray dog, but ranked by Forbes magazine as the 153rd richest human being on the planet, Ivanishvili can well afford such eccentric luxuries. Of late though, the Georgian billionaire, until last year the most secretive and reclusive of the oligarchs to rise from the ashes of the Soviet Union, has had more serious worries on his mind than the progression of Zelda's burgeoning pregnancy, or the parasite that is ravaging the dates on the estate's palm trees.

Until last October, very few people knew anything about Ivanishvili. It was known that his primary residence was a sleek glass castle on a hill overlooking Tbilisi, that he doled out huge amounts of money in stipends to Georgia's struggling artists and actors, and that he was a poor boy from a small Georgian village who had made it big in the 1990s in Moscow and now controlled assets in Russia worth several billion pounds. But that was about it – until recently nobody even knew what he looked like.

Then, last October, Ivanishvili made a sensational announcement in an open letter, and called the media to his contemporary chateau to follow it up. He was going into politics. He insisted that the rule of President Mikheil Saakashvili, a US-educated reformer who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution, had morphed into a ruthless dictatorship, and that he was the man to challenge it. He invited the country's myriad opposition parties, ranging from über-liberals to radical nationalists, to join around him in a coalition, the Georgian Dream, and fight parliamentary elections as one bloc. He himself would be prime minister for one or two years, he said, and then leave politics, but continue to fund it from his personal coffers.

Fast-forward 10 months, and I am following Ivanishvili on his campaign trail, ahead of parliamentary elections due on 1 October. The man who once only travelled incognito is now touring Georgia and drumming up support for his coalition. On the day that I join, he is campaigning in Svaneti, a mountain region of picturesque hamlets and ancient stone towers, an eight-hour drive from the capital, Tbilisi.

Campaigning in Georgia is not for the faint-hearted. At one point we climb for an hour up a sheer path to an 11th-century church perched on top of a mountain, where a religious festival is under way and hundreds of locals and visitors are jostling both to make it up to the church, and to get a glimpse of the visitor. Save for the bodyguards and the motorcade of black limousines waiting below, the scene could be straight from the Middle Ages. Atop the hill, candles are lit, bells rung by hand, goats are being skinned and stewed in giant pots, and a strong-man contest is under way involving the lifting of giant rocks. Ivanishvili, who hardly breaks a sweat during the climb in the summer sun, stops to hear the concerns and complaints of ordinary Georgians. Mainly they moan about a lack of jobs and investment. "We don't know much about him, but we are willing to give him a try. He can't be worse than the others," says 82-year-old Eduard, a local villager.

After a long day of pressing the flesh, a five-hour drive tailing Ivanishvili's motorcade brings us from the crisp mountain air of Svaneti to the soupy heat of the sub-tropical Black Sea coast. As we are driving along the road that hugs the coast, the driver pulls a sharp right turn at the smallest of breaks in the trees, and we pass through an unmarked entrance equipped with a barrier and security cameras. I'm driven to a large wing of functional rooms where a small army of security agents, cooks, cleaners and other assorted staff stay. "Bidzina is tired, he'll see you in the morning," I'm told.

The next morning at the appointed hour, a crimson golf buggy pulls up stealthily to bring us to Ivanishvili, but I notice that the unassuming driver is the man himself, dressed in jeans, a short-sleeved shirt and loafers. So begins an impromptu tour of the grounds – the animal collection, as well as a house for friends, a restaurant complex, a metal promontory jutting out 20 metres into the sea that we drive down in the golf buggy, and finally Ivanishvili's own house. He chats trilingually as the mood takes him; either in reasonable English, in lightly-accented Russian, or in his consonant-heavy native Georgian, translated falteringly into English by an aide who has accompanied us. It is hard to believe that the man casually showing off his summer house and pointing out his 15-year-old daughter reclining in a lounger by the pool is the same person who until a year ago was considered the most reclusive man in the former Soviet Union. The golf buggy's stereo system is playing a remix of Frank Sinatra's "My Way".

The buggy pulls up outside one of the buildings and we take seats in a bland lobby area that could belong to a four-star hotel in any world city. We talk for two hours about why he has decided to fight what has widely been considered one of the most progressive regimes in the former Soviet region, and why it is that he has such hatred for the current government. "I was forced to come into politics, because Saakashvili had destroyed the opposition. I had a choice either to leave the country, because it was dangerous to live here, or to go into politics." He even chartered a plane for his family several times, he claims, but in the end decided he had to stay and fight. "We will win. No doubts. I will be in the government for a year, or for two years maximum, and afterwards I will become an active member of society, to help society learn how to elect people and how to control their politicians. And make sure that there is a free press, and a real opposition."f

The government's initial response was aggressive – Ivanishvili was stripped of his Georgian citizenship, and his local bank was raided. Such an approach was counterproductive, so Saakashvili's team then settled on a more subtle form of attack, painting Ivanishvili as a political dilettante and possibly a front for malicious masters in Moscow. "The dark forces of the past, whatever money they are armed with, whatever lies they are telling… will not be able to stop Georgian people's accelerated drive towards progress," said Saakashvili back in May.

I meet with Raphael Glucksmann in one of Tbilisi's pleasant outdoor cafés to hear the government take on Ivanishvili. Glucksmann, a svelte Frenchman in his thirties, is the son of a French philosopher and one of Saakashvili's top advisors. "When you have this much money in the hands of one person, it would be a problem for any country," he says. "But it's especially problematic for a small country like Georgia. He has more money than the state budget."

Glucksmann is married to Eka Zguladze, the Deputy Interior Minister, who at 37 is one of the older members of Saakashvili's government. Saakashvili, himself just 36 at the time of the Rose Revolution, swept away the old guard and filled his government with youth. It was not unusual for ministers to be in their twenties, and with a few exceptions, any kind of service to the Soviet system meant an automatic disqualification from taking part in building the new state. This, of course, led to a whole generation of the angry and disenfranchised, which is very receptive to Ivanishvili's campaign. But the billionaire insists he is looking to the future, not the past, and that his problem is not with Saakashvili's Western-leaning outlook but with the fact that the current government cloaks autocratic methods with a mere façade of democracy.

Ivanishvili's narrative of contemporary Georgia is so wildly different to Saakashvili's that the two men may as well be talking about completely different countries. Saakashvili's people talk of a thriving democracy knocking on Europe's door, with the old Soviet mentality erased by efficient reforms and replaced with an effervescent meritocracy. Ivanishvili's brigade declare Georgia a totalitarian state, controlled by a ruthless cartel of a few men around Saakashvili who have scooped up all the economic and political resources for themselves, control the majority of media and are painfully sensitive to even the smallest criticism. The truth, unsurprisingly, is somewhere between the two extremes. The very fact that Ivanishvili and the opposition can make such public criticisms without the spectre of imprisonment or worse is testament to how far Georgia has come under Saakashvili – in neighbouring countries, such openness would be unthinkable.

Everyday life has also changed irrevocably. A decade ago, the capital experienced frequent electricity shortages, the police took bribes from all and sundry as hungrily as they do in all the other post-Soviet nations, and criminality was rife, with people scared to leave their houses in the evenings. Now, Tbilisi is a pleasant, civilised city with smart cafés and an aura of safety. Even Ivanishvili admits the police reforms were successful, at least initially, but says further reforms are needed and points to an autocratic streak in the government. "There is a strong vertical of power and one person decides everything," he says. "We need to introduce a culture of self-government and not have everything come from the top."

Ivanishvili's description of Saakashvili is withering; he calls him a "genuine coward" and even a "professional liar". He pauses for a moment before delivering his most surprising accusation: "If you want to look at it more deeply, the main problem is that he does not know what love is," he says gravely, fixing his hazel eyes on me. A few days later, I recount the allegation with a grin to a friend, a Tbilisi intellectual. But instead of giggling along, she nods resolutely, as if being apprised of a great truth for the first time. "You know, maybe Ivanishvili is right," she says with a heavy sadness in her voice.

This, after all, is a country where emotions are highly valued and worn on the sleeve. The capital's main street is named after a poet. The country's first post-Soviet president was a literary critic, and was in turn ousted by a painter and a playwright, who also happened to be military commanders. And one of the most revered professions in the country is that of the tamada, essentially a professional toastmaster who composes eloquent, impassioned speeches for the guests at wedding and birthday banquets to revel in before knocking back their drinks. There is no culture of the stiff upper lip here; this is a place where love, hatred, joy and sorrow come tumbling forth without filter.

But the hyperactive Saakashvili seems to me to be the perfect example of this Georgian exuberance – even at his lowest points, such as when cameras caught him preparing for a television interview by munching on the end of his tie, his problems seem down to a surfeit of emotion rather than a lack of it. So what does Ivanishvili mean? "He does not love; he cannot love. He cannot share others' sorrow. I feel sorry for him. He doesn't need to be jailed, he needs to be helped."

Glucksmann tells me Saakashvili and Ivanishvili never had any kind of relationship, so the President takes the criticism calmly: "They were never close so he does not feel it like a betrayal." In fact, he says, the pair only ever spoke twice. "He gave his money for cultural things and the Church, but there was never a relationship there." I ask Ivanishvili if this is true. "They said what?" he guffaws in disbelief. "There were days when Saakashvili called me 50 times! I would tell him, 'Misha, stop calling, I can't take it any more!'."

Ivanishvili says he had a rule in Tbilisi, in Moscow and in Paris – his house was for family only, and only one or two business partners who had become friends were allowed in. "It's customary in business to invite your partners to your house, to make the families friends, it helps with business. But for me, the home is sacred. No business partners were ever allowed in, let alone Saakashvili! If Putin had found out I was meeting him, my business in Russia would have been over the next day." Even before the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, there was extreme suspicion of Saakashvili and his pro-Nato agenda in Moscow, and Ivanishvili claims he would fly to Saakashvili's residence by helicopter, where the two men would have meetings in secret, to avoid the Russian leadership finding out.

Despite this, Saakashvili kept trying to call on Ivanishvili at home, claims the billionaire. "He called me once and said, 'I'm in the botanical gardens below your house, why don't I just walk up on foot?' Another time he suggested driving himself up in a Lada Zhiguli, in disguise, so nobody would know. I told him no way."

Ivanishvili says the two men met weekly for several years, but after Saakashvili's re-election in 2008, uneasy at how involved he was, and wary of the political course Saakashvili was taking, he cut off contact. "I told him I'm changing my SIM card, stop calling me, I don't want to be a politician and you've made me into one. When you leave politics we'll be friends, but for now we can't meet any more. He tried to persuade me, even sent his wife to see me, but I said no."

I went back to Saakashvili's people with the broad outline of Ivanishvili's claims. They reiterated that the two men had spoken "no more than two or three times ever".

As with everything about this contest, the two versions of the relationship could not be further from each other.

How Ivanishvili went from being a poor Georgian villager to one of the richest men in the world is also a story cloaked in a good deal of mystery. As he himself puts it: "I could tell you anything and you wouldn't be able to check it".

The story as he tells it is a classic oligarch's tale of wiliness and ruthlessness, clambering up ladders and dodging the multitude of snakes that dotted the gameboard of early 1990s Russia, when the clever few were able to get rich quicker than at any other time in human history. Excelling at secondary school, which was a three-mile walk from his home village, Ivanishvili went to university in Tbilisi, where he learnt Russian for the first time. "I finished my degree with distinction in 1980," he says. "Journalists never write that and it offends me." He then set off for Moscow, where he struggled to fit in. The Russian students bullied him and told jokes about Georgians; eventually he was too embarrassed even to set foot in the cafeteria because of all the mockery. But he says he realised something the Russian students did not.

"In Georgia, people had already understood that Communism couldn't survive, and I came to the institute in Moscow, and people still believed in it. They were completely different people and I found it very difficult psychologically." He also began to realise how much potential there was in computers. "I was writing my PhD in the late 1980s and was keeping an eye on what was happening in the world. It became obvious to me that Russia couldn't live without computers. I think I worked this out a year before anyone else. I started looking for people who could help import them."

He managed to track down old Jewish acquaintances from Tbilisi, many of whom had since emigrated to Israel or the West, and begged them to borrow or steal enough money to buy a computer or two and sneak it into Russia. "They hadn't left that long before, and they were by no means rich, but some of them managed to cobble together thef money for a computer and get it into Moscow, where we could sell it for 40,000 roubles. It was worth the price of two cars at the time!"

Within 18 months, Ivanishvili and three partners had earnt $80,000 – enormous money at the time, and enough to open a bank. "The thing that saved us was that the bandits had no idea what computers were," he grins. "They were blowing up cafés for 1,000 roubles, and we were wandering around with these large boxes that contained computers worth 40,000 roubles. As soon as they started to realise the value of what we were dealing with, we moved on."

With the money they had made, the friends set up a bank, Rossiisky Kredit, which went on to become one of the largest in Russia, and Ivanishvili acquired a diverse portfolio of retail, property and other businesses. "Everyone rushed to oil, to aluminium, where you could get quick returns, but it was too dangerous. I made longer-term investments. If ever a sector looked like turning violent, we got out."

Ivanishvili claims that the bank was never involved in any dubious sectors, however a source in the Moscow business world laughs at the idea, and describes the bank as "one of the most secretive in Russia".

Seizing on Ivanishvili's long history in Russia, as well as his calls for better relations with Moscow, the Saakashvili camp has painted him as a Kremlin stooge. The nadir of Saakashvili's reign was the 2008 war with Russia, in which the Georgian army was routed and all the internal progress that had been made was threatened. Most neutral observers believe that Saakashvili's government bore at least a share of the responsibility for the outbreak of hostilities, and since 2008, Russia and Georgia have had no diplomatic relations, and territory recognised as part of Georgia by most of the world are effectively occupied by Russian troops.

Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his extreme dislike for Saakashvili, famously saying he wanted to hang the Georgian leader "by the balls". Ivanishvili has promised an end to the posturing and a new, better relationship with Moscow, something that the current regime has seized upon as a sign that he is a Kremlin plant.

"I can't tell you what exact relations Ivanishvili has with the people in the Kremlin," says Glucksmann. "But he has never criticised Putin's foreign policy, which is an obvious vote-winner in Georgia." If he wasn't working to some kind of Russian plan, thinks Glucksmann, it would have been a no-brainer to rail again Putin and the Kremlin. "And don't forget the fact he sold his assets so quickly and for a good price – you can't do that in Russia without having good relations with the Kremlin."

Ivanishvili claims he is just as much a critic of Putin as he is of Saakashvili. "I left Russia when Putin came," he says. "My hobby was psychoanalysis, and the way he moved his hands, the complexes he had, it scared me. I understood Putin's psychology and I realised I had enough money to live freely and be happy, I didn't want to stay and be part of that system." He moved to Paris and then back to his home village of Chorvila, while work on his glass castle in Tbilisi was under way. Ivanishvili says he has not so much as set foot in Russia in more than a decade, extraordinary if true, given the vast business empire there he continued to control until this year.

For years he spent hundreds of millions of pounds in Georgia quietly, without any demand or desire for recognition. Theatre directors recount a quiet man coming backstage after a show to ask questions, and the next day a huge donation for renovations being announced. Hundreds of cultural and artistic figures received second salaries from Ivanishvili's cultural foundation. He built the biggest church in the country, and bought new uniforms for the army. Why? Simply for the pleasure of giving, or to assuage a gnawing sense of injustice at having so much when his country was so poor?

"What a hard question," he says, pausing to think. "It's both of those things and more. Of course it's awkward when you have things and others don't. Theatres are falling apart, actors who you loved from your youth are going hungry, it's awful. My closed lifestyle, my status as a hidden person meant I was able to go out on the street and meet people and hear their problems, and it was impossible not to want to help them. I tried to spend 1 per cent of my money on myself and 99 per cent on society. This is how I was able to live with myself." He did find the time to amass an extraordinary collection of contemporary art worth hundreds of millions of pounds, high-quality copies of which are hung in his Tbilisi mansion. The originals are in a vault in London, squirreled away on the advice of insurers who said it was too risky to keep them in Georgia.

Going from invisible man to public figure was not easy, he says. It was not only that Ivanishvili did not like the media, he shunned the whole world of oligarchic soirées. "I don't like anything where you have to wear a mask, and can't be yourself," he says. He has never so much as had a birthday party. Instead, to relax, several years in a row he wintered in the Seychelles, flying in a few close friends and a plane-load of his favourite Georgian folk musicians to keep him company.

"The first month was very hard, I felt sick every time I saw a camera," he says of his new life. It is clear he is still learning how to deal with journalists. "You can write some of this, but don't write it all," he says, while telling a juicy story of how he dispatched a nephew to Moscow to negotiate the sale of his Russian businesses after he had decided to go into politics. "Actually, probably you can write it all." Pause. "But actually it's better not to." Pause. "Though I suppose you could." Later, during the photo-shoot, he enquires whether it is OK that he is not wearing any socks.

We say our goodbyes and I make the five-hour journey from the Black Sea back to Tbilisi. Back in the capital, every conversation these days is infused with politics, it seems. "Perhaps it is time for a change, but I don't trust Ivanishvili," says a Tbilisi-based trainee doctor in her thirties, a sentiment I hear many times among the country's youth. "I don't trust anyone who has spent so long in Russia. What if he's a Kremlin plant?" Others speak fondly of his charity work and back him. Unsurprisingly, opinion polls are split: Saakashvili's aides quote a number of surveys that give Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream coalition a healthy but unthreatening minority of between 18 and 30 per cent of the electorate. Ivanishvili cites another poll giving Georgian Dream a nine-point lead over Saakashvili's National Movement. In a country with a history of street protests, the potential for a stand-off after the count comes back is ominous.

Kakha Kaladze is the country's David Beckham; for years captain of the national team, and the winner of two Champions League titles with AC Milan. Having lived for 12 years in Italy, he ripped up his contract in May and returned to Tbilisi. Sitting in an office adorned with photographs of both footballers and famous Georgian writers, Kaladze says Ivanishvili won his trust because of his decision to return to Georgia. "He has so much money, he has everything he could ever want. He could have happily lived in any city, in any country in the world. But he couldn't leave Georgia." Kaladze is running for parliament with Ivanishvili's party, Georgian Dream. "Like him, I could have stayed away, in Milan. But this country is important to us," he says.

Georgian Dream is an oddly subjunctive moniker for a political party, and it has led Ivanishvili and his gang to be dismissively nicknamed "the dreamers" in some quarters. But then, if you were picking someone to be in charge of turning dreams into reality, a man with a fortune in the billions and a collection of albino peacocks might not be a bad choice.

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