Rags to Riches to President: Meet the eccentric candidate for President of Georgia
September 29, 2012 6:28 AM   Subscribe

Bidzina Ivanishvili, presidential candidate, has a long name, but a story you won't forget. From village boy to billionaire (estimated worth of USD 6.4 billion - half of Georgia's GDP, making him the 153rd richest person on the planet), Ivanishvili essentially created his own kingdom in his old village, setting up alternative healthcare and education system, paving the roads, and designing welfare payment. After starting an opposition party earlier this year, he may have a shot at using his fortune to experiment with Georgia's future. While he isn't running for president directly, whichever party wins Parliament on Monday will be able to elect a prime minister next year.

Born into a large poor village family in the Soviet Republic of Georgia and walking 3 miles each way to the nearest primary and secondary school, Ivanishvili made it to university in the capital city, Tbilisi (and did night school, paid for by sweeping metal shavings in a steel mill), learned Russian, and moved to Moscow to begin a PhD in 1982. While still a grad student, he and a friend began importing computers and push button telephones from Israel. This business allowed them to start their own bank (in 1990!)

Unlike many Russian businessmen of the time, Ivanishvili is clean. All the evidence, including a thorough investigation by the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, does suggest that Ivanishvili is that rarest of rare beasts: a Russian banker who survived the 1990s with relatively clean hands and conscience. [link to GQ/TNR profile]

His investments go beyond his village: He has paid for schools, restored museums, bought boots for the army (“They were running around in slippers,” he told a New York Times reporter) and gas for police cars. He has paid, unbeknownst to anyone until recently, for the construction of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s main cathedral, Tsminda Sameba, whose gold-plated dome looms above Tbilisi on roughly the same level as the spheres and rhombuses of Ivanishvili’s own residence. He has taken over theaters and paid the actors’ salaries. [link to GQ/TNR profile]

Why? Of course it's awkward when you have things and others don't. Theatres are falling apart, actors who you loved from your youth are going hungry, it's awful. My closed lifestyle, my status as a hidden person meant I was able to go out on the street and meet people and hear their problems, and it was impossible not to want to help them. I tried to spend 1 per cent of my money on myself and 99 per cent on society. This is how I was able to live with myself. [link to Independent profile]

But until last October when he announced that he was entering politics, few Georgians even knew what he looked like.

He invited the country's myriad opposition parties, ranging from über-liberals to radical nationalists, to join around him in a coalition, the Georgian Dream, and fight parliamentary elections as one bloc. He himself would be prime minister for one or two years, he said, and then leave politics, but continue to fund it from his personal coffers. [link to Independent profile]

For context, Georgia experienced a coup, The Rose Revolution, in 2003 where a group of young Western educated reformers, led by Mikheil Saakashvili, took over the government and started a program of rapid reforms.

Despite some successes - reduced corruption, reformed police, and economic growth - Saakashvili and co. have also tightened their grip on Georgian politics. Opposition groups are suppressed, media outlets are censored, and laws have been put in place that gives much more power to the center.

And then last week a scandal broke that may be the tipping point for Ivanishvili. Video of prisoners being raped and tortured by the deputy chief of the penitentiary system, the warden and his deputy was broadcast and as a result, protests broke out and the Interior Ministee and Correctional System Minister resigned. This is exactly the kind of corruption and behavior that Saakashvili claimed to be against and to have wiped out.

The differences between Saakashvili and Ivanishvili are stark - Saakashvili is a handsome charmer. Ivanishvili is awkward.

Like many of his wealthy peers, Ivanishvili is known for some eccentricities. He has pet zebras (a mother and son, the son born on the property); he believes in attachment parenting; prefers organic food; 2 of his children are albino and one of them is a popular Georgian rapper; he also collects peacocks - in particular albino peacocks; and he is an avid art collector, but hides the originals outside of Georgia.

So, is this nutty billionaire better for Georgia than Saakashvili? Maybe. As Scott Radnitz argues, two machines are better than one. [Foreign Policy]

Also: Forbes profile

[A successful FPP on this topic that did not include the phrase "Georgia on my mind"]
posted by k8t (24 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Also, I don't mean to make him out to be a saint. It is POSSIBLE that he has some skeletons in his closet from his Russian years. And one could argue that throwing money around isn't a fair way to win.

But in these post-Soviet republics where so much is screwy, heck... this might be the jump start that Georgia needs.

And I do think that his rapping son is adorable.
posted by k8t at 6:38 AM on September 29, 2012

Only in Ameri......wait a minute what I never
posted by nevercalm at 6:42 AM on September 29, 2012

Relatively clean hands and conscience?
posted by adamdschneider at 6:48 AM on September 29, 2012

While he isn't running for president directly, whichever party wins Parliament on Monday will be able to elect a prime minister next year.

Huh? The Prime Minister is subordinate to the President. They're two totally different jobs.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:52 AM on September 29, 2012

For clarification - in 2010 the Georgian parliament changed the constitution to make the president a figurehead and the PM really in charge. This is supposed to start when the current president's term is done. (Ha!)
And then the new parliament would elect the old president to the PM spot.

If the current regime is out, it is likely that they'll change the constitution back.

Here's a little background: http://www.rferl.org/content/stakes-could-not-be-higher-in-georgian-parliamentary-elections/24723413.html
posted by k8t at 7:08 AM on September 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

“They were running around in slippers”

Slippers or portyanki?
posted by Nomyte at 7:39 AM on September 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh John Ringo No?
posted by BeeDo at 9:01 AM on September 29, 2012

Thanks for getting together the additional background articles.
posted by stowaway at 9:37 AM on September 29, 2012

Relatively clean hands and conscience?

It has been said, controversially, that no great fortune has ever been built without at least one criminal act.
posted by oneswellfoop at 1:59 PM on September 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

FYI he's dirty, and Misha has quite the surprise to pull out when the elections are on.
posted by jaduncan at 2:57 PM on September 29, 2012

Geez. In the Wikipedia link it says the government fined him 90.9 million dollars for "violating the legislation on party funding." In the Foreign Policy link it says they fined him 45 million. Those could even be separate fines, though maybe not. These guys aren't playing around.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:20 PM on September 29, 2012

I hope he's being honest about preferring negotiations over shelling, but he's kind of hedging there by continuing to align Georgia with the NATO powers, which given Georgia's geographical location is pretty provocative.

Every Georgian politician has to say that; Georgia is quite nationalist and the polling basically says that you can't win as dog catcher without a unification stance. Remember, there's a lot of IDPs in Tbilisi housing blocks who would quite like their nice Abkhaz/SOian houses back...and quite a few people in Tbilisi who would like the IDPs to leave too.
posted by jaduncan at 3:37 AM on September 30, 2012

When are the elections?
posted by infini at 4:09 AM on September 30, 2012

Parliamentary - depending on your time zone, right now! (October 1)
Presidential - October 2013.

Quick version of Georgian politics:

Misha has presided over stabilisation and economic growth, and has provided a very clean police force. Set against that, the prisons are terrible (see the famous video - it's not unrepresentative of what can happen) and a lot of the wealth is in prestige projects in the centre of cities or to benefit the elite (the building of two separate airports to serve Tbilisi, for example) that have left the poor and the regions behind. I was mentioning the IDPs; quite a lot of the people selling fruit in Tbilisi markets left quite nice farms at home in SO/Abkhazia and really want to go back. For that reason, you can't really make it in Georgian politics without supporting reunification of the country, and Misha has also done arguably stupid things such as free nationalist summer camps next to the border of Abkhazia where the kids sing Georgian songs loudly etc.

Misha has a bit of a tendency to look for the flashy over doing the base work to improve the whole economy, and worse than that he has become the Georgian state to an extent which is quite unhealthy. For an example of that, last year during riots the cops were chanting "Misha, Misha" as they kicked fifty shades of red out of the protestors.

The campaign is essentially presidential even though it's parlimentary; it's pretty much a straight choice between Misha's allegedly autocratic (I would agree with this) and economically right-wing (more arguable; some good work has been done) known quanitiy and the Ivanishvili promises of reform (needed) and bread for all (dubious, although frankly the man has the money to pay for it). Misha is also very pro-NATO/EU, and Ivanishvili is somewhat more pro-Russian.

I'm not sure that Ivanishvili isn't being smarter about the geopolitical stance of Georgia; there seems a deal to be done where Georgia and Russia accept a disagreement over recognition of SO/A but accept trade links. This would offer the Georgian farmers a large export market for wine again, and do a lot to make the countryside richer. One interesting part of this is that the only viable land trade route directly to Russia for wine export is one tunnel that runs through the Caucasus mountains...and starts in South Ossetia.

Quick version of the surprise regarding Ivanishvili for the presidential election: he kept himself clean and rich due to links to the Kremlin siloviki (security services/executive crossover) and the FSB in particular.
posted by jaduncan at 5:16 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and Ivanishvili's Georgian Dream party has inherent problems; it's made up of an Anyone But Misha coalition that is extremely diverse in political beliefs. It's not impossible that some of the coalition just get bought off by Misha and "surprisingly" vote for him for PM.
posted by jaduncan at 5:20 AM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ivanishvili just refused to vote at his voting photo op, and the party has asked their members to gather tonight in Tblisi to "defend their votes"...this will wendell.
posted by jaduncan at 8:19 AM on October 1, 2012

The billionaire opposition leader of Georgia claimed victory in the country's parliamentary election last night after exit polls gave his "Georgian Dream" coalition a shock lead.

Bidzina Ivanishvili's success, if confirmed, would deal a stunning blow to President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has run the former Soviet republic since the Rose Revolution of 2003. It would also send shock waves through a region where changes of government in elections are almost unheard of.

Government aides said that, while they appeared to have lost the popular vote, they might still hold a majority of seats in parliament, which will be decisive in electing a new Prime Minister. The official results will not be known until this morning.

posted by infini at 8:26 AM on October 2, 2012

infiniti, Misha already made his concession speech on Georgian TV. Interesting times ahead with Russia, I guess; there's a big geopolitical prize for them here if they can convert Georgia as they'd have allies all the way down (they are politically close to the Armenians already) to the Iranian and Turkish borders.
posted by jaduncan at 9:25 AM on October 2, 2012

there's a big geopolitical prize

You mean the oil pipeline?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:28 AM on October 2, 2012

You mean the oil pipeline?

Several things. There's the pipeline (it was originally intended to skip Gazprom influence) and the ability for Russia to project power in the ME and act as a counterweight against Turkey again. The Armenians are always going to be interested in a Russian alliance given that they hate Turkey and the Azeris and want Nagorno-Karabakh back. Russia could now have bases there and a viable land supply route for both their military and trade with Georgia and Armenia whilst cutting off the main weapons supply route to the Chechen rebels and the other troublesome southern provinces. There's a lot on offer for them if they can swing it.
posted by jaduncan at 9:33 AM on October 2, 2012

The whole inter relationship between the former USSR countries is sorta like watching a daytime soap, complete with billionaire technocrats.
posted by infini at 9:45 AM on October 2, 2012

Russia also have the money to throw at Georgia if they want to; it's only 5 million people, and that's not a lot to keep better off in return for denying the only pipelines in that area (there's two) that ran through non-Gazprom land. Aside from via Georgia, the picks are Armenia (not a goer, as mentioned above they are rock solid with Russia) and Iran(!). There's a lot of unhappy Pentagon people right now, and a reason so much foreign money was with Misha.

The pipeline to Turkey also gives Russia more leverage over them, obviously. Combined with them being buddy-buddy with the Stans, they are potentially in a good geopolitical position right now.
posted by jaduncan at 9:56 AM on October 2, 2012

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