Georgian tycoon top of the trough

Georgian billionaire and opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks to the media during press conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Efrem Lukatsky, AP)

Georgian billionaire and opposition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili speaks to the media during press conference in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Efrem Lukatsky, AP)

In the challenger's extraordinary glass home for an interview, I found a work by Gilbert & George. It is to Ivanishvili's credit that he agreed to be photographed next to it and a slogan that reads: "Say fuck off to rich bastards." Ivanishvili is, after all, worth $6.4-billion and is one of the richest bastards, or successful businesspersons, on the planet.

His possessions include a zoo with penguins, lemurs and a zebra kept at his village in western Georgia and a large collection of modern art. There are sculptures by Henry Moore (the art works dotted around his residence are all fake, the originals "kept safe" in a London vault). His home is a striking one-off – a James Bond-like space-age palace of steel and tubular columns and panoramic views of Georgia's twinkling capital Tbilisi. Aides nickname it the "glassle". There is also a fleet of black Land Cruisers.

In October 2011 Ivanishvili unexpectedly entered politics, challenging Saakashvili in a battle that became increasingly nasty and personal. Ivanishvili charges

that Saakashvili – who swept to power in 2003 during the Rose Revolution – has morphed into a dictator.

As Ivanishvili put it, it was Saakashvili's despotic behaviour that forced him into politics.

"I'm 56 years old. I decided to go into politics because of our Soviet-style government," he said.

Bought off
The tycoon said Saakashvili had "bought off" Georgia's old parliamentary opposition in 2008, forcing him to forge a new alliance last year with the country's surviving independent political forces.

Ivanishvili complained bitterly of the persecution he had endured ever since. The state had stripped him of his Georgian citizenship, he said. Several of his activists had been arrested. He even hinted that Saakashvili was personally capable of dark deeds. "I'm very happy that I'm physically alive. We could have experienced pretty much everything from this government," he said, flanked by members of his opposition team.

Despite his loathing for Georgia's president, however, Ivanishvili's policies seem rather similar. On foreign policy he said the following: "Our policy is European and Euro-Atlantic integration. There is no substitute for Nato." The pro-Western Saakshvili believes the same: it was his desire to join Nato that contributed to the Kremlin's crushing invasion of Georgia in 2008, following the president's doomed attempt to wrest back breakaway South Ossetia.

Ivanishvili has previously stated that Vladimir Putin's Russia is now freer than Saakashvili's Georgia. Asked about this, Ivanishvili gets irritated; his response is surprisingly thin-skinned. The government has painted Ivanishvili as a Russian agent and the accusation clearly grates. He made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s (in banking, pharmacy and real estate) but said he had now sold off two-thirds of his Russian assets, although he still had a significant chunk of gas company Gazprom. "You journalists are always asking about Russia," he said.

But how might he improve relations with the prickly Putin, the man who promised to hang Georgia's current president "by the balls"?

"It's important to reinstate cultural and commercial relations," he said.

Interview over, we troop out past the Gilbert & George fake and admire the stunning view from his terrace as the sun sets.

And what about his zoo? Saakashvili's aides said the penguins were evidence of his eccentricity. Actually, it appears he is ­genuinely fond of his animals.

"I bought my penguins from a zoo in France. I've got four of them," he said. He admitted that Georgia's warm climate was not really "sustainable" for his pet zebra and said he liked his lemurs. "They're like cats really." But Ivanishvili has another problem: too many deer. His small herd keeps on breeding, he said. "Would you like to take a deer home?" he asked with a smile. – © Guardian News & Media 2012



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