- - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

It was a picture that launched a million tweets.

A 650-pound tulip tree uprooted by eccentric Georgian billionaire and former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili floating on a barge. Mr. Ivanishvili dug up the 135-year-old tree, along with two giant swamp cypress trees, relocating them from a village in West Georgia to his private park in Ukreki on the Black Sea coast.

Mr. Ivanishvili (net worth $5 billion, half of Georgia’s gross domestic product) is the Vito Corleone of Georgia. He lives in a massive 108,000-square-foot steel and glass palace, which boasts a waterfall, a private zoo of exotic animals and his own private shark tank, for which he imports tons of salt to keep the man-eating predators happy.

Recently exposed in the Panama Papers for his offshore financial dealings in the British Virgin Islands, Mr. Ivanishvili still runs the country Mafia-style with his lackeys installed in public positions. The massive leak of confidential documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed how the world’s elite use offshore tax havens to hide billions. Mr. Ivanishvili’s company, Lynden Management Ltd., was named in the document leak.

As prime minister of Georgia from 2012 to 2013, before he resigned and designated his own replacement, Mr. Ivanishvili was required to publicly file his assets. These 72 pages list dozens of properties, stock holdings, bank accounts and businesses. But one company in his empire, Lynden Management, is not listed in these asset declarations, which could bring criminal charges against him.

Even though Mr. Ivanishvili was acknowledged to be the beneficial owner of Lynden Management back in 2011, Mossack Fonseca’s compliance office spent the next four years trying to obtain Mr. Ivanishvili’s passport copy, which they needed to comply with anti-money laundering regulations. In August 2015, they finally received a copy of his passport. As of September 2015, they still hadn’t received a proof of address.

In another recent leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails, Mr. Ivanishvili was secretly lobbying the former secretary of state through her henchman, Sidney Blumenthal. Mr. Ivanishvili — a Vladimir Putin ally — was eager to meet with then-Secretary of State Clinton, but found himself snubbed during a state visit in June 2012. In September 2012, Mr. Blumenthal prepared a long, official-looking memo for Mrs. Clinton, asking her to support Mr. Ivanishvili in the Georgian election.

Mr. Blumenthal, engaged in lobbying on behalf of a foreign official, never registered with the Department of Justice as the law requires.

More than a half of Georgia’s population (68 percent) consider themselves as unemployed, according to a new poll by the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Only 10 percent of respondents rate favorably the work of the Parliament as the country gears up for new elections in the fall.

If elections were held tomorrow, only 15 percent of the respondents of the NDI poll say they would vote for Mr. Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream.

This sharp drop in support is partly due to the lack of economic growth. While Mr. Ivanishvilli holds his offshore accounts, the lari, Georgia’s currency, lost nearly half of its value during the past 18 months. Other factors are lack of free media, (Mr. Ivanishvili, who rarely grants interviews, is known for temperamental outbursts toward those who publicly criticize him), a dysfunctional judicial system, political prisoners and Soviet-style corruption. Like Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, Mr. Ivanishvili is ruling from behind a curtain as a so-called “private citizen.”

Since 1992, American taxpayers have pumped more than $3 billion into the country. Aside from military assistance, the objectives in Georgia are focused on building democracy, promoting regional stability, and fostering economic growth and health services.

Where did the money go?

In a recent speech before the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Steve Russell, an Oklahoma Republican, called for sanctions against representatives of the Georgian government for attempting to rig the upcoming elections.

He accused Mr. Ivanishvili of being “chief among the funding efforts and political infiltration,” calling for a freeze on the bank assets of the billionaire for alleged “violations as an illegal arms trader” as well as a freeze on the bank assets and a revocation of visas for unspecified officials and business leaders who are “complicit in tampering with free elections.”

Arcadi Gaydamak, chairman of the Directors Council of Mr. Ivanishvili’s bank, Rossiiskyi Credit, was convicted by a French court of arms trafficking worth $790 million in Angola during the 1993-1998 civil war. Described as an “import export magnate,” the Russian oligarch was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison, but his conviction on the arms-dealing charges was overturned by the Court of Appeal in Paris in 2011.

He was later convicted of tax evasion and money laundering in what became known as “Angolagate.”

If Mr. Russell succeeds in an investigation of possible arms dealing and money laundering, is there a political future for Mr. Ivanishvili? Many Georgians believe he is a threat to relations with the United States.

In a recent interview with Radio Liberty which quickly grew testy, he said, ” I am just an ordinary citizen . As for the question of power, my power rests in the fact that people trust me and appreciate my words.”

But that’s just another dream, Gadhafi-style.

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of Parliament from Georgia.

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