The richest man in Georgia – Bidzina Ivanishvili – is a rising star on the South Caucasian political arena. Unlike the opposition up to now, his party Georgian Dream – Democratic Georgia, thanks to financial backing of the leader, might pose a serious threat to Mikheil Saakashvili and his followers.
The first million well earned
The fortune in Ivanishvili’s possession is estimated at USD 6.4 billion – half of Georgia’s GDP. Just as a majority of oligarchs, Boris Ivanishvili, for this name he uses in Russia, grew rich thanks to the privatization process after the fall of the Soviet Union. His specialty is buying out metallurgical companies. Having a flair for trade, Ivanishvili accumulated a substantial fortune in cordless push-button telephones, which were going like hot cakes in Russia in the first half of the 90s. Nowadays, in his possession there are more than 40 companies total – among others, lucrative investments in Moscow’s real lands, where right now housing estates are built, and shares in a Russian chain of drugstores Doctor Stoletov.
After the Rose Revolution, Ivanishvili, that time using the name Bidzina, decided to relocate to Georgia. President Saakashvili welcomed the oligarch with open arms, immediately granting him the country’s citizenship. The reason behind such a reception were plans on attracting capital and encouraging affluent Georgians – who were spread over the world – to move their investments to their homeland and to support modernization of the country.
Till his return, Ivanishvili avoided publicity, but was actively involved in charity works, granted student scholarships, and established close connections with the Georgian Orthodox Church – he is the main founder of the biggest Orthodox church in the South Caucasus, the Holy Trinity Cathedral of the capital, Tbilisi. Through these actions, the oligarch has already made much needed political capital.
The Trojan horse
In autumn 2011, Ivanishvili made an extreme turnabout: from a practical recluse he transformed himself into a shark circling the seas of Georgian politics, loudly voicing the challenge to the Saakashvili’s team. Thus, the incumbent president, feeling threatened, decided to impede the launch of the oligarch’s political career. First, Ivanishvili was stripped of his Georgian citizenship that he had held alongside the French and Russian ones, and then a tax investigation regarding his companies was ordered. The authorities’ actions strongly pointed to Ivanishvili’s alleged cooperation in favour of Russia, with whom Georgia has been in a conflict since 2008.
Quo vadis, Bidzina?
The political direction of Ivanishvili remains largely unknown. Thus far, the message of his party points out to its pro-Western attitude, including Georgia joining the NATO, as well as a will to strengthen relations with Russia. Declarations expressed in the programme are vague and populist. Parties that the oligarch chose for his main political partners – Republican Party of Georgia and the Free Democrats (led by Irakli Alasania), both recognized in the West and perceived as credible – present the pro-Western option. Yet the closest circle of Ivanishvili consists also of the former top brass names back from the era of Shevardnadze.
Considering the political motives of the oligarch we better do not forget the legacy of his life in Russia – experience, influence and contacts – which must leave impression on his current political actions.
Autumn will be a hot season
Backed by his financial power, Bidzina/Boris could be unpredictable in his actions. The basic point, however, is how much effort Mikheil Saakashvilli will have to invest to keep the power while not compromising the values of transparency and democracy. This year, we are to witness the clash of titans led by Bidzina and Mikheil.