|Billionaire tycoon shakes up Georgia politics|
|November 11, 2011|
By Damien McGuinness BBC News, Tbilisi
He has been variously compared to Dracula, the Wizard of Oz and even Bruce Wayne, Batman's wealthy philanthropic alter-ego.
Now billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili has his sights set on winning Georgia's parliamentary elections next year and ousting President Mikheil Saakashvili's party from power.
But is the government trying to push him out of the race?
Until last month he was a mysterious figure, hidden away in a James Bond-style modernist glass and steel fortress, complete with helipad, on a hill overlooking the Georgian capital.
He never gave interviews, was rarely seen in public and was known mainly for funding the arts and paying for public buildings such as Tbilisi's huge ornate cathedral.
Not much was known about him except that his extensive art collection included works by Picasso, Lichtenstein and Henry Moore; that he had made his money in Russia's iron ore industry in the 1990s; and that his fortune was estimated to be $5.5bn (£3.46bn), around half the value of the entire Georgian economy.
But the fog of mystery is now starting to evaporate. In October, the enigmatic Mr Ivanishvili suddenly stepped into the limelight, announcing his ambition to overthrow President Saakashvili's party in next year's elections.
"I have come into politics to save my country, not to challenge Saakashvili," he told the BBC during an interview in his palatial Tbilisi headquarters, as he gave an impromptu tour of his multi-million dollar art collection.
The authorities responded by stripping Mr Ivanishvili of his Georgian nationality, making him ineligible for political office.
Mr Ivanishvili also holds Russian and French passports. According to Georgian law, it is illegal to hold dual or triple nationality without permission from the president. So far, Mr Saakashvili has not commented.
Police also detained employees of the bank he owns, confiscating $2m and 1m euros from a bank van which was transporting cash. Georgian authorities say they are investigating the bank for money laundering.
Mr Ivanishvili accuses the government of trying to prevent him from taking part in the political process.
"This shows that we are living under an increasingly authoritarian government now, one in which Saakashvili is above the law. In fact, he is the law. We can already smell the growing power of a dictatorial regime."
The ruling party has denied the allegations Mr Ivanishvili is being victimised. According to ruling party MP and parliamentary vice-speaker Gigi Tsereteli, the authorities are simply acting according to Georgian law.
"After it was found out he had been granted another citizenship, his Georgian citizenship was automatically cancelled," explained Mr Tsereteli, adding that the confiscation of money from Mr Ivanishvili's bank was the result of an investigation.
"The explanation given by the bank was that this [money] was to pay salaries: But that is very suspicious. According to Georgian law, salaries should be paid only in Georgian currency."
The ruling party also believes Mr Ivanishvili, whose businesses are mainly in Russia, could be influenced by the Kremlin. The argument is that anyone who has managed to stay this wealthy in Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's Russia must have Moscow's support.
"His wealth is in Russia, so we think that Russia could have strong leverage over him. He could have very close relations with Putin and this could be used as leverage," said Mr Tsereteli.
Some more nationalist ruling party MPs go even further. They accuse Mr Ivanishvili of being a pawn in a Kremlin-backed plot to undermine Georgia's government and overthrow Mr Saakashvili, an enemy of Mr Putin.
They accuse Mr Ivanishvili of wanting to "buy Georgia's future with Russian money".
But critics of the government say this is simply a tactic to discredit Mr Ivanishvili in voters' eyes, by painting him as pro-Russian.
Some human rights activists believe it is just the latest example of Mr Saakashvili's administration monopolising power. All of Georgia's main national television channels are staunchly pro-government. And the courts are seen as not independent enough of government control.
According to Georgi Khutsishvili, director of the International Centre on Conflict and Negotiation, the Ivanishvili case shows that the government will use any means possible to crush political opposition.
"They want to send the message that anyone not in the government's team will be destroyed, and that this will be done in a way which has nothing to do with legal correctness.
"There will just be a crucifying blow following every attempt to win power - especially if a person with lots of money tries to use that money against the government."
Mr Ivanishvili managed to pull himself out of poverty in the mountains of rural western Georgia to become one of the richest men in the region. And today he certainly has enough money to make an impact.
But Georgian politics can be a boisterous affair.
Mr Ivanishvili's first ever press conference descended into chaos as journalists shouted and pushed each other out of the way to grab the microphone.
And it is not unknown for MPs to start brawling in parliament.
So as the fight for power begins, it is another question entirely how this quietly spoken art lover will contend with a struggle that will undoubtedly become even more raucous.
BBC © 2011
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