The New Titan of Tbilisi
Eccentric billionaire (and exotic-pet enthusiast) Bidzina Ivanishvili just won a shock election in Georgia. But is he too crazy to actually govern?
TBILISI, Georgia — Beyond his zebra-rearing, art-collecting eccentricities, we don’t know all that much about Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition won a shock victory in Monday’s parliamentary elections here. But after his victory news conference, we do know one thing for sure: He’s no orator.
In a long meeting with the media in a sweaty room at Georgian Dream headquarters on Tuesday, Oct. 2, Ivanishvili rambled, repeated himself, appeared to make up policy on the spot, and accused a reporter from a major international news agency of being a stooge for his opponent, President Mikheil Saakashvili. He was also oblivious of the fact that Georgian law requires Saakashvili, as president, to approve the prime minister’s nomination, at least until the Georgian Constitution changes next year. Initially, he argued forcefully with journalists that this was incorrect, before later conceding the point.
It was an unnerving performance that might give people some cause to wonder just who the man is who has benefited from the wave of popular fury against Saakashvili’s reforming but authoritarian rule, and what kind of government he might go on to lead.
Much of the vitriolic election campaign that took place here over the past few months focused on the flaws or benefits of Saakashvili, the hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution. His eccentric opponent was something of a side attraction. Now that Ivanishvili’s coalition is going to dominate Parliament, however, the spotlight falls on the oligarch, who lived in complete hermitdom prior to his entry into politics.
Until last year, few people even knew what he looked like. He had given just one interview, to the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, back in 2005, and he shunned all publicity and public events. He moved as stealthily as a cat whenever he left the safety of his contemporary castle of glass on a hill overlooking Tbilisi, disbursing his philanthropic donations to Georgian artists and intellectuals quietly and anonymously.
After he announced in October 2011 that he was the man to challenge Saakashvili, he had to make a quick adjustment to the world of media appearances and interviews. A gift to the profile writer, Ivanishvili often seems like he has wandered straight off the pages of a Gary Shteyngart novel. His political rallies have featured performances by his albino son, who is a rapper. When I interviewed him two months ago, at his Black Sea estate, he arrived driving a red golf buggy, playing "My Way" on the stereo and offering an impromptu tour of his exotic-pet collection before we sat down to chat. There were flamingos, parrots, peacocks, and two zebras. Another reporter who visited one of his other residences discovered a kangaroo and several penguins (it being January, they were swimming around his pond and not being refrigerated, as they are during summer).
"The main problem is that he does not know what love is," Ivanishvili told me when I asked him what he disliked about Saakashvili. In an interview with the Russian edition of GQ, he elaborated: "I love people, unlike Saakashvili, and they feel it," he said. "Saakashvili loves only sex and food."
In the time we spent talking, he came across as a surprisingly affable, if rather bizarre character. He was comfortable talking about how Zelda, his zebra mare, is pregnant, or how there are eight breeds of peacock (he has them all). He was even comfortable talking about his rise from a Georgian villager to a Russian billionaire and how he negotiated the dangers of the 1990s Moscow business climate. He was less cogent, however, on specific policies, concentrating instead on ad hominem attacks on his opponent. (Saakashvili’s people, for their part, returned the compliment, describing him as a "weirdo" and a Kremlin stooge.) He also appeared confused by the transition from dealing with business subordinates to dealing with inquisitive journalists. At the end of our interview he waved a hand and said, "You know which bits to use and which bits not to use, right? I’m sure you understand what you should write and what you shouldn’t."
Now that the interviews are taking place in front of dozens of television cameras, his confusion that a journalist’s purpose actually might be to ask him difficult questions rather than make him look good is more easily visible. At his Tuesday news conference, responding to a perfectly reasonable question from a Bloomberg reporter about whether the so-called "thieves-in-law" may come back to Georgia now that he is in power, Ivanishvili lost his cool. "Who asked you to ask that question? Saakashvili? Bokeria?" he snapped, referring to the president and one of his key advisors, Giga Bokeria. "It is not a valid question. I’m not answering it."
Despite the plethora of advisors who surround him, he also seems to be poorly briefed and is already making statements inconsistent with the few interviews he has given. When asked on Tuesday how much of his fortune he had spent on his campaign, he said: "About $2 million. I’m not sure, exactly. Between $1 million and $3 million." In a July interview he said he had already spent up to $10 million.
His sense of political timing also leaves something to be desired. In his rambling introduction he made the same point four times and spoke at length about how he would prosecute a single judge who had been responsible for what he called unlawful verdicts against the opposition. He stated that if Saakashvili could work with the opposition, then a cooperative relationship could be achieved. Nearly two hours into the news conference, however, Ivanishvili suddenly dropped a bombshell, demanding that Saakashvili resign, instead of seeing out the final year of his presidency. "The only right thing for him to do now is to take his pen and resign," Ivanishvili said. "This would be good for himself and for his future." Ivanishvili appeared to have had the thought on the spot, and the statement immediately caused alarm among the international community, especially after Saakashvili’s surprisingly magnanimous concession speech. "This call is totally unacceptable and is a direct attack against democracy and the rule of law," said a statement from Wilfried Martens, president of the European People’s Party, which is affiliated with Saakashvili’s United National Movement. It was only on the thorny issue of relations with Russia that Ivanishvili sounded assured, insisting that he would seek to bolster trade and cultural ties with Georgia’s overbearing northern neighbor, but at the same time vowing not to err at all from Saakashvili’s course of NATO and EU integration.
The general consensus at the moment is that this election campaign, despite being spiteful and vitriolic, has ended up as a tremendous advertisement for Georgian democracy. There are not many countries in this region where a powerful sitting president could be so undermined at the ballot box. But Georgian politics, after all, has a long history of enthusiastic celebration of a messiah figure before a swift process of disillusionment kicks in. Recently, we have been inundated with headlines and op-eds referencing pruned or wilted roses (the most recent: "Petals Drop Off the Rose Revolution").
The test for Ivanishvili will be keeping his newly victorious coalition — which ranges from liberals to ultranationalists — together, now that they are no longer fighting a common enemy. How soon before we see the first "Georgian Dream Turns to Nightmare" headline? Not long, unless Ivanishvili develops a new set of political skills quickly.