Bidzina Ivanishvili: Country's richest man - and prime minister - has Georgia on his mind

He's rich, reclusive and currently fighting his arch rival for control of Russia's most belligerent neighbour. Georgia's PM grants Shaun Walker a rare audience

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The Independent Online

Bidzina Ivanishvili's house is a vast Japanese-designed mansion, perched on the mountainside overlooking Tbilisi and made almost entirely of glass. Each morning at 5am, Georgia's richest man, and since October its Prime Minister, wakes and performs his daily yoga exercises.

In his sight-line across the city is the dome of the Presidential Palace, where Mikheil Saakashvili, charismatic leader of the 2003 Rose Revolution and the country's President ever since, lives and works. It does not dominate the cityscape in quite the way it once did, as Mr Ivanishvili has ordered the lights that once illuminated it every night to be switched off, ostensibly to save on electricity bills.

The face-off between these two contemporary chateaux on top of a wintery, snow-clad Tbilisi, is a visual reflection of the uneasy political cohabitation that Georgia must live with for the next year. Mr Saakashvili's United National Movement was roundly trounced in October's parliamentary elections, a result that neither he nor the international community had seen coming. He had planned to install his right-hand man as Prime Minister, a role soon to be given far more constitutional power, but instead he ended up with his bitter foe in the role.

Mr Ivanishvili, one of the most successful and the most mysterious oligarchs to do well in 1990s Russia, had lived for years as a recluse, but came out of hiding last year to challenge Mr Saakashvili, whom he of accuses of dictatorial tendencies despite his democratic rhetoric. An eccentric hermit who hates the limelight and kept an exotic collection of pet zebras, penguins and kangaroos at his many lavish residences, Mr Ivanishvili makes an unlikely politician. But frustration with the President, combined with excitement at Mr Ivanishvili's promises to plough millions of his own money into developing the country, led to a spectacular victory for his coalition.

The two are different in many ways. Mr Ivanishvili is a Russian-educated engineer and economist who followed the classic oligarch's path to riches, buying and selling companies in the post-Soviet era. Mr Saakashvili is a US-educated lawyer who returned in the mid-1990s to build a career in politics and went to war with Russia four years ago over the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

In the two months since Mr Ivanishvili's election victory, criminal cases have been opened against former ministers, and foreign leaders have expressed alarm at what appears to be a campaign of political retribution against Mr Saakashvili's team. Several ministers are under investigation, more than a dozen officials are being held in prison, and each day brings news of further arrests.

Mr Ivanishvili invited a small group of foreign journalists, including The Independent, to Tbilisi this month to set the record straight. He said the arrests all related to genuine crimes, and that the international outcry was due a misunderstanding. Europe had got used to the "picture conjured and concocted by the Saakashvili government," said Mr Ivanishvili. "He [has] managed to succeed in deceiving European leaders. He is a sophisticated liar."

"None of the arrests were politically motivated," agreed Irakli Garibashvili, Georgia's new Interior Minister. "Any normal democratic state would do the same thing as we did."

Yet many officials have been arrested and imprisoned for seemingly minor offences. Vano Merabishvili, the long-standing Interior Minister and Mr Saakashvili's choice for Prime Minister had he won the elections, was questioned for allegedly using a fake passport. An image of Mr Merabishvili in the interrogation room was leaked, deliberately he thinks, to send a message to the population: the architect of Georgia's police reforms is now himself a suspect. "They have [also] arrested my 71-year-old uncle, supposedly on charges of illegally cutting down forests," said Mr Merabishvili. "My mother has been in tears."

It is difficult to untangle the narratives of contemporary Georgian politics. Each side demonises the other while claiming impeccable democratic credentials for itself. Western leaders have commended Mr Saakashvili for building a system in which he could actually be defeated in an election, unlike the majority of his neighbours, but there is no doubt that he has sometimes seen himself a benevolent dictator, building a new, modernised country but without much public consultation.

Yet Mr Ivanishvili is no model democrat. He caused alarm by suggesting that the prosecutions against former officials would be dropped if he was allowed to rule unhindered. "He has said several times that the level of persecution will depend on how vocal we are," says Giga Bokeria, an adviser to Mr Saakashvili who is leading negotiations between the two political forces. "In a democracy, that is unacceptable."

"Those statements certainly caused a stir in the diplomatic community," said a Western diplomat in Tbilisi. "It's too early to tell, but there are worrying signs he wants to push Saakashvili out before the end of his term, not work democratically on a cohabitation period."

Alexander Rondeli, the doyen of Georgian political analysts, says it is too early to write Mr Ivanishvili off as an autocrat, but suggests that the billionaire's sky-high approval ratings may take a hit when people realise he is not the Messiah and cannot use his own money to improve people's lives overnight. "People expect it will be Shangri-La immediately, but it will take decades of hard work," he said.

Mr Ivanishvili initially promised that he would be in politics for just two years and then retire, leaving other coalition members to take over. But already he appears to have had a rethink, saying only that he will occupy "whichever position is best for the Georgian people".

Despite the possibility that he will remain in politics longer than he promised, he claims not to be enjoying the ride. "Politics is not in accord with my character," he says, with a mysterious smile. "To tell you the truth I almost never like it. But most people on this planet have to do things they don't like to do."

Head to head: The rivals

Bidzina Ivanishvili

The youngest of five children, he was born on 18 February 1956 in Chorvila, Georgia. He studied engineering and economics at university before going on to set up a business importing and selling push-button telephones in Russia. Ivanishvili made the bulk of his reported $6bn fortune (which, according to Forbes, makes him the world's 153rd richest person) in banking and metals, selling off many companies during the post-Soviet privatisation boom. He has a stake in what used to be called Hotel Lux, the Moscow hotel that where German Communists fleeing Hitler in the 1930s would stay, only for it then to be purged by Stalin who feared its residents were spies. He also has a collection of exotic animals, including zebras, lemurs and penguins, and expensive tastes in art. Ivanishvili owns works by Damien Hirst, Roy Lichtenstein, Henry Moore and Lucien Freud, and is also rumoured to be the mystery buyer who snapped up Picasso's 'Dore Maar Au Chat', right, for $95m in New York six years ago. He claims to have begun collecting out of a sense of national duty, and has suggested he could put his art on display in a Guggenheim-style setting to attract tourists to Georgia. He lives in a $50m glass-and-steel complex in Tbilisi designed by Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu. Married with four children, his son, Bera, is one of Georgia's best-known rappers.

Mikheil Saakashvili

Georgia's third President led the Rose Revolution that deposed former Soviet Foreign Affairs minister Eduard Sheverdnadze, below, from the palace in Tbilisi in 2003. Born in the Georgian capital in 1967 to a doctor father and a historian mother, Saakashvili is a student of law who spent time working in America before returning home to pursue a career in politics. Pro-Western and pro-Nato, his rivals criticise what they see as his authoritarian tendencies. He has been President of his country twice and is married to dutch national Sandra Roelofs, with whom he has two sons – Eduard, aged 17, and Nikoloz, aged 7. In 2011 Eduard set a new world record for speed-typing on an iPad, completing the English alphabet in 5.26 seconds, 1.05 seconds quicker than the previous best set by British teenager Charlie McDonnell. Saakashvili has been portrayed on film by Andy Garcia in Renny Harlin's 2010 film 5 Days of War.