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Richest Georgian finds wealth is no political protection

- - Sunday, January 1, 2012

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.

Since he returned from Russia in 2004, he avoided politics and focused on philanthropy.

Two months ago, however, he began penning open letters accusing Mr. Saakashvili of tyrannical behavior and pointing to the state's control over the nation's broadcast media and the dominance of a single party in parliament.

Now, Mr. Ivanishvili is eyeing the post of prime minister, a position strengthened by recent constitutional amendments. Mr. Saakashvili also may run for the position. His presidential term expires in 2013, and he is constitutionally barred from running again.

Some opposition figures worry that Mr. Saakashvili is not ready to give up power, noting parallels with Mr. Putin, who served as president, currently as prime minister and is now running for president again.

"Saakashvili is a politician of the past. Whatever he did good and bad, that's it," said Mr. Alasania. "He can only drag Georgia down because he has the ambition to stay in power as Putin does."

Elections are scheduled for October, and the political maneuvering has begun.

In October, the government stripped Mr. Ivanishvili and his wife of their Georgian citizenship on the grounds that they had taken French passports. He also held Russian citizenship, which he renounced this week.

A Georgian court last week upheld the revocation of his citizenship, but ordered the restoration of his wife's. Mr. Ivanishvili is appealing the court decision in his case.

Giorgi Gabrielashvili, a Justice Ministry official, said the government followed standard procedure in revoking the couple's citizenship.

"We could not do otherwise," he said. "We are professionals, not politicians."

Noncitizens in Georgia are prevented from leading political parties or funding campaigns.

Last month, Mr. Ivanishvili filled the 2,000-seat Tbilisi Philharmonic Hall for the launch of a political movement called Georgia Dream.

He hopes to use his considerable fortune to finance a political party, but his wealth also is being probed.

In October, police seized a cash transfer by his Cartu bank in downtown Tbilisi. Authorities said the volume of currency — $2 million in U.S. dollars — was suspicious.

"We cannot afford a commercial bank in any way being involved in politics," said Giorgi Kadagidze, governor of the National Bank of Georgia.

Cartu Bank Director Nodar Javakhishvili — himself a former central bank chief — said the move was an old-fashioned shakedown.

"There is no political money in our bank," he said. "There is huge political pressure on all enterprises of Cartu Group."

Meanwhile, thousands of Georgians have opened accounts at Cartu Bank in a sign that Mr. Ivanishvili has tapped into a vein of discontent.

One 30-year-old man in a dusty black leather jacket said he deposited less than $1 into a new account to show solidarity with the billionaire who, he said, gives him hope.

"I have no job, and it's because of this government," he said.