Georgian billionaire comes out fighting

From rich recluse to political force, Bidzina Ivanishvili has vowed to oust the President

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The Independent Online

A reclusive, eccentric billionaire has stepped out of the shadows and vowed to topple the regime of the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili.

For years, Georgians have known little about Bidzina Ivanishvili, who until last week had only ever given one interview, despite being one of the richest men in the world. The tycoon, who made his fortune in Russia, lives in a custom-built contemporary castle on the outskirts of Tbilisi and is rumoured to keep a retinue of pet zebras.

He was also known for his philanthropy, and for personally funding hundreds, if not thousands, of Georgian artists and intellectuals. But he hated all publicity, and it was widely assumed that he had no political ambitions.

Until now. In a rambling open letter addressed to Mr Saakashvili and the Georgian people, Mr Ivanishvili threw down the gauntlet to the country's pro-Western president two weeks ago. He said he was dismayed at the state of Georgian politics, and had twice resolved to emigrate for good. "I managed to overcome this fear, doubt and scepticism in myself," the billionaire wrote. "Now it's your turn."

The charismatic Mr Saakashvili came to power in the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003, promising to end Soviet-era corruption and dictatorship and make Georgia a European democracy. The country did change radically, with drastic reforms of the economy and police, but critics say Mr Saakashvili always had an autocratic streak.

Constitutionally, he must step down when his second term ends in early 2013, but there is speculation that he may be preparing to emulate the political course of his nemesis, Vladimir Putin, and move to a newly strengthened prime-ministerial role.

"I know that he wants to stay in power," Mr Ivanishvili said in an interview after his letter was published. "We should not allow that." He said he would link up with certain existing opposition forces and expected to become the largest grouping in the Georgian parliament.

Mr Ivanishvili's unexpected entry into the political fray has prompted what appears to be a well orchestrated campaign against him in recent days. He was stripped of his Georgian passport, on the grounds that he had acquired French citizenship. Georgian television, largely state controlled, has sought to portray him as an agent of the Kremlin, and one of his Georgian banks has been raided amid accusations of money laundering.

The billionaire insisted he was not a Kremlin stooge, and said he wanted to "astonish Europe with the level of democracy" he planned to create in the country.