INTERVIEW: A Georgian billionaire to the rescue

By bne IntelliNews November 25, 2011

Molly Corso in Tbilisi -

Reclusive Georgian billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili has set his sights on politics, vowing to use his business know-how to rejuvenate the economy and restore relations with Russia. But concerns about his business ties with Moscow and alleged underhand tactics by President Mikheil Saakashvili's government threaten to derail his campaign for parliament even before it begins.

A previous supporter of Saakashvili and his government, Ivanishvili has moved from being a benefactor to an opponent. The current government, he claims, is a lesson in how a country should not be run.

The 185th richest man in the world, according to Forbes magazine, Ivanishvili is betting he can turn his business savvy into a political victory. Good management and diplomacy will rectify the economic and political crisis President Mikheil Saakashvili has brought on the country, Ivanishvili tells bne in an interview at his home in Tbilisi.

Into the spotlight

A small, thin man with graying hair and a calm, nearly professorial manner, Ivanishvili is an unlikely politician. A poor boy from a small village in central Georgia, Ivanishvili made his $5.5bn fortune in post-Soviet Russia by being smart - and quiet. While other future oligarchs grappled for the bounty of the country's gas and oil resources, Ivanishvili stuck to metals and banking.

In contrast with Georgia's other billionaire-cum-would be politician, Badri Patarkatsishvili, Ivanishvili seemed content to live a quiet, secluded life in Georgia, donating tens of millions of dollars to government projects and charities, but staying out of politics.

That all changed, however, in October when the reclusive billionaire issued an emotional letter blasting Saakashvili and his ruling party for destroying the country. In an epistle brimming with allegations and damnations, Ivanishvili took the political elite - and the country's media - to task.

Georgia's problems, he tells bne, stretch from bad management to poor economic policy and faulty diplomacy. The country's foreign investment woes are an example of how mediocre management and "elite corruption" have ruined Georgia's chances to attract investment, Ivanishvili stresses. "When foreign business sees that bureaucrats are meddling in their business cases, they are afraid to invest here," he says, adding that his future political team will pull on strong management and Georgian professionals from the Diaspora to eradicate corruption and strengthen the rule of law. "The most important thing is that there is a will from the top."

He also has strong opinions about everything from joining Nato - he is in favour of joining the alliance - and the recent Tbilisi-Russia deal on the World Trade Organization, which he views as a wasted diplomatic opportunity.

But, despite Ivanishvili's ambitions, his path to power is far from guaranteed. A month after announcing his plans to take on Saakashvili's party in the 2012 parliament elections, problems dog his foray into politics.

Just days after he announced his intention to unseat the ruling party next year, authorities revoked his Georgian citizenship, evoking a little known law that Georgians cannot have dual citizenship without special permission. Ivanishvili currently has French and Russian citizenship.

While Ivanishvili's legal team battles the decision in court, the billionaire is unable to officially create a party, finance a party or run for office. In addition, a newly proposed draft law on party financing would outlaw funding from legal entities - a move that is being perceived as an effort to stymie Ivanishvili's efforts to circumvent the citizenship issue.

Ivanishvili's plans to launch a political movement, Georgia Dream, have also been hindered by "artificial obstacles," according to his press service. The launch, initially planned for November 25, has been postponed while Ivanishvili's team grapples with scheduling conflicts at Tbilisi's largest indoor event venues. Sufficient space at Tbilisi Concert Hall, which was allegedly renovated with funds from Ivanishvili's charity group, was reportedly not available.

In addition, the authorities reportedly seized $2m and €1m intended for his Georgian-based Cartu Bank, claiming the funds were evidence in a suspected money-laundering operation. The bank has denied the allegations. Bizarrely, a representative from his business was detained at the Tbilisi airport and a collection of his daughter's science magazines were confiscated based on suspicions they contained "radioactive" materials, according to media reports.

The government's efforts to undermine him, however, will backfire, Ivanishvili claims. He stresses that he is "in the process" of selling his business interests in Russia to end rumours he is aligned with Moscow. "Unfortunately, our government has under its control all media stations, which is the best way to transfer information to people. But I am happy, that Georgian people don't believe them any more," he says. "Unfortunately, there are some believe that I am a saviour and I worry about this a lot. I don't want people to be disappointed."

INTERVIEW: A Georgian billionaire to the rescue

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