Richest Georgian finds wealth is no political protection

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TBILISI, Georgia The richest man in this former Soviet republic was a reclusive figure, living in a $50 million compound of steel and glass with sweeping views over the presidential palace.

But after he announced his intention to run for parliament in a move that threatens the political establishment, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili found that his hilltop retreat offered no protection from the full-contact sport of Georgian politics.

The government quickly revoked his citizenship and is now investigating his bank in a money-laundering probe.

Supporters say he offers hope and change after eight years of President Mikhail Saakashvili, 44. Opponents accuse him of being a puppet of the autocratic Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

“Many of us understand that this money and this support — financial, moral, political — is coming from our archenemy, our No. 1 enemy, Russia,” said parliamentary Majority Leader Petre Tsiskarishvili. “Ivanishvili is their tool of last resort to topple the Georgian government.”

The roots of the Georgia-Russia conflict go back to the collapse of the Soviet Union, when two Georgian territories seceded with Russian support.

In August 2008, the conflict erupted into open warfare when Georgia tried to retake the rebel republic of South Ossetia. The two sides fought a five-day war. A cease-fire is holding, but relations remain frozen.

While 63 percent of Georgians polled in September by the National Democratic Institute said they still view Russia as a threat to Georgia’s sovereignty, only 32 percent approved of the government’s confrontational approach.

Some dismiss the Russian conspiracy talk as scare tactics.

“The West is too fed up with this spy-mania,” said opposition leader Irakli Alasania, who has allied himself with Mr. Ivanishvili.

“In the West, they understand perfectly well this is a narrative that Saakashvili is building on purpose,” said Mr. Alasania, a former diplomat who broke ranks with the president in 2008 to form his own political party.

Mr. Ivanishvili has been careful not to criticize Mr. Putin directly.

“The most democratic countries manage to have a good relationship with Russia,” Mr. Ivanishvili said during a news conference.

Outside Georgia, Mr. Ivanishvili, 55, remains an unknown figure.

A poor village boy from western Georgia, he made most of his fortune in Russia during the privatization frenzy of the 1990s, buying and selling firms and building a banking and iron-ore empire. His estimated worth is $5.5 billion — roughly half of Georgia’s gross domestic product. Forbes magazine ranks him as the world’s 185th-richest man.

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