Bidzina Ivanishvili: Georgia's billionaire prime minister

Little-known billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili surprised many by beating Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili at the polls. But just what has Georgia voted for?

Whatever you think of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire who has just swept to a shock electoral victory in Georgia, he's certainly got a sense of humour, says The Economist. "Do you know Gilbert and George?" he asked, posing for photographers in front of a large picture by the London artists during his election campaign. One of the slogans on the picture read: "Say Fuck Off to Rich Bastards".

There's no question that Ivanishvili is rich. According to Forbes, he's worth $6.4bn, or just under half of Georgia's GDP. But until last October, when he formed his Georgian Dream coalition, few in the country had even heard of "this most secretive and reclusive of the oligarchs to rise from the ashes of the Soviet Union", says The Independent.

It was known that Ivanishvili was a poor boy from a small village who had made it big in the Russia of the 1990s, and that he doled out huge sums in stipends to Georgia's struggling artists and actors. But, until recently, nobody knew what he looked like.

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That all changed a year ago when Ivanishvili elected to emerge from his cocoon of privacy, says The Sunday Telegraph. He claimed to be driven by the patriotic obligation to save Georgia from "the creeping dictatorship" of Mikheil Saakashvili, who had swept to power during the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003 (see below).

Ivanishvili's glasnost was as rapid as it was glitzy and revealed him to be an animal-loving eccentric, who filled his three palatial compounds in different corners of the country with menageries of flamingos, penguins and zebras, and an extraordinary collection of contemporary art. Married to his college sweetheart, he has three sons.

Ivanishvili "leaves a slightly chilling first impression", says The New Republic. "Like many highly successful people, he is convinced he understands the very essence of human nature" and spends the first few minutes of a conversation quietly studying his guest. "Obsessed with healthy food, he is said to employ a taster." Security around him is tight.

Born into a mining family in 1956, Ivanishvili has showered so much cash on his native village, Chorvila, "that its streets are as clean as Zurich's".

But he left it as a 17-year-old to study in Tbilisi, before heading to Moscow. "Russia was the only place you could make a career then." Ivanishvili established his first co-operative venture in 1988, selling computers and telephones and used the proceeds to open the Rossiiskii Credit bank in 1990. It seems he was "that rarest of beasts: a Russian banker who survived the 1990s with relatively clean hands and conscience".

Even so, his long history in Russia, and his calls for better relations with Moscow, made it easy for his political opponents to paint him as "a Kremlin stooge", says The Independent. Were they right? Georgia is about to find out.

A predilection for authoritarianism

When Mikheil Saakashvili and his supporters in the United National Movement carried roses through the streets of Tbilisi in 2003, they pledged to bring "real democracy to Georgia", says Neil Buckley in the FT. But even two weeks ago, "they scarcely suspected" they'd lose control of parliament. That Saakashvili has conceded defeat gives the lie to Ivanishvili's allegations that he is a tyrant.

The question now is whether the two men can "cohabit for a year". Constitutional rules specify that Saakashvili can remain president until October 2013, when he must transfer many executive powers to the prime minister, Ivanishvili.

It won't be easy after such a vitriolic election campaign, says The Economist. Ivanishvili's side "gained a huge coup" when videos of men being beaten up and allegedly tortured in prison emerged. Yet there was also "widespread belief" that the worst of them were staged.

The Dream Coalition is a potential can of worms. The six parties in it have nothing in common except a hatred of Saakashvili. Many of the party leaders, "who range from Western-leaning liberals to nationalist xenophobes, also hate each other; some... don't like Ivanishvili much either".

For the rest of the world, the key issue is whether Georgia, a pivotal state in the region, will continue on its westward-

leaning path, or focus on rebuilding bridges with Russia, with whom it waged a bitter war in 2008 over South Ossetia. Ivanishvili has promised to continue pursuing EU and Nato membership. But it's hard to see how he'll reconcile that with getting closer to Moscow.

Ultimately, the biggest unknown, says Michael Idov in The New Republic, is what kind of leader Ivanishvili will be. He is "used to solving all Georgia's problems by himself and at his own expense" and has a "predilection for authoritarian decisions". What looks like "generosity" in the private sector could resemble something altogether more sinister on the public stage.