You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Georgia’s Next Leader May Be a Billionaire Zookeeper with Albino Rapper Children

With a scorching Georgian summer drawing to a close, and October 1 parliamentary elections around the corner, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili—the only serious threat to President Mikheil Saakashvili’s current hold on poweris finally deigning to give interviews. Here is how one unfolds. You fly to Tbilisi and check into a hotel (provided, full disclosure, by the campaign) without knowing when and where the meeting is going to happen. That evening Kakha Kaladze, the former AC Milan defender and now Ivanishvili’s right-hand man in his Georgian Dream coalition, calls you and asks if you’re alone. Once he’s ascertained that you are, Kaladze, wearing a Georgian Dream T-shirt, meets you in the hotel lobby and, after a few minutes’ worth of exploratory questions, names the time and place: tomorrow, at noon, in Batumi. Batumi is four hours away from Tbilisi—five if you get stuck in the bovine rush hour, when herdsmen drive their cattle up and down the single-lane highway that links the capital with the coast. At quarter to eight the next morning, a laconic driver named Mirab picks you up in a black Mercedes G500. A few hours into the drive, Mirab begrudgingly lets on that you’re not actually going to Batumi at all. You take out your phone and start tapping out panicky texts home. At that very moment, the real destination appears on the horizon: Ivanishvili’s summer residence near the Black Sea town of Ureki.

“There wasn’t even running water here. The beach, the canals, the hotels, the roadBidzina built all that,” says Mirab, gesturing out the window with his left hand at the town’s well-kept façades. “He’s a straight guy, straight up,” he adds unexpectedly, as if arguing with an invisible opponent. “All legal.”

Mirab has been driving cars for Ivanishvili going on twelve years. Over that time, Georgia’s richest manhis current net worth, $6.4 billion according to Forbes, equals almost half of the country’s GDPhas left his mark on practically every aspect of life here. 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. Rumors have it that in better times he frequently lent millions to Saakashvili himself.

None of this, however, compares to what Ivanishvili has done for his native village, Chorvila, in the district of Sachkhere. The streets of Chorvila are as clean as Zurich’s; nearly every house boasts a new roof and a fresh coat of paint. The services of the village hospital are free. Many, if not all, residents receive a monthly “grant” of 200 lari (about 120 dollars) on top of their regular salarywhich most of them draw from Ivanishvili’s businesses anyway. Once a year Bidzina skips the formalities and simply grants wishes, like Santa Claus, handing out televisions, DVD players, and kitchenware. 17,000 Chorvila houses had free gas stoves installed; Ivanishvili’s wife’s nail stylist got a free house to go with hers. Their fine waterworks notwithstanding, the residents of Ureki might feel a bit slighted in comparison with the Chorvilans.

The G500, meanwhile, turns onto a nondescript country road leading to something like a state border: a gray wall, automatic gates, a guard booth.  In a sense, that’s what it isthe place where Saakashvili’s Georgia ends and Bidzinaland begins. The gates swing open, and suddenly the car is on a vast boulevard lined with palm trees. A live zebra nonchalantly prances alongside.

After the zebra, nothing surprises you much: not the taciturn servants in Georgian Dream T-shirts; not the golf cart that takes you across acres and acres of lawn and orchard to a round glass building by the sea; nor the building itself, which recalls the banquet hall of a grand shuttered resort (the staff call it the “restaurant”); nor the single table set up in the emptiness of the “restaurant” with a Georgian breakfast spread and a dish of vitamins (B12, cod-liver oil). The only surprise left in store is the place’s owner and primary resident.

Bidzina Ivanishvili descends the stairs and practically jogs toward you. He is short and lean, with an ex-gymnast’s build and a graying buzzcut overgrown into spikes. He is wearing a Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt three sizes too big, black Boss jeans, and a relatively cheap Rado watch. The conversation begins in English, then slips into Russian; Ivanishvili knows both well, though not as well as he’d like. This wouldn’t stand out so much, however, if the man who has taken it upon himself to lead an entire country weren’t so visibly nervous.

“You seem to have some personal safety concerns, judging by the circumstances of this interview,” you say.

“Not really. The security like to show off in front of journalists,” Ivanishvili replies in his off-kilter Russian. “They think it works. I don’t.”

He pauses for a moment and explains:

“Any private security is a joke in a country where you’re up against your own government.”

* * *

Contemporary Georgia, like the glassy modernist architecture that’s sprung up all over it, tends to reflect the eye of the beholder. The U.S. looks at it and sees a stronghold of recognizable values, from Christianity to the Chicago school, in a far-flung and inscrutable region. Moscow’s rulers seeor at least say they doa rogue state under the yoke of an entrenched dictator. The Russian opposition, in part to spite the Kremlin, imagine Georgia as a sort of ideal Russia from a more fortunate parallel universeone with flavorful food in rustic restaurants, incorruptible officials in designer offices, a subtropical climate, and wine so cheap it is practically free. Liberal Moscow, as the media entrepreneur Ilya Oskolkov-Tsentsiper succinctly puts it, “lives in a kind of Inner Tbilisithis magic city where everything is fine.” Even the prison-torture scandal that shook Georgia in September, significantly strengthening Ivanishvili’s chances, appeared to support every point of view: the barbaric treatment of the prisoners befit a dictatorship, while the government responsethe broadcast of the incendiary videos on national TV, followed by the immediate canning of high-ranking officialswas pure Western Europe.

As usual in these cases, everyone has a point. It would be silly to deny Georgia’s growth since the Saakashvili-led revolution of 2003: prior to it, for example, the government had fallen short of its projected budget by 30 percent for four years in a row, and tried to hush it up. (In 2002, sick of Georgia cooking its books, the IMF refused to deal with it). Just six years of liberalizing reforms lifted the country from 112th to 12th place in the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” ranking. The change, in the cities at least, is palpable. Street-level bribery is a thing of the past. Astride the river Mtkvari in central Tbilisi glimmers an outrageously expensive bridge whose shape has earned it the nickname The Tampon. (Ivanishvili, trying to channel public sentiment early in the campaign, has promised to demolish it as soon as he comes into power). Donald Trump’s name is all over casino-happy Batumi.

It would be almost as silly, however, to deny that all this growth was achieved at the usual post-Soviet price: by concentrating as much power as possible in the hands of one man and purging the field of competitors. “Misha,” as Ivanishvili calls Saakashvili, “has succeeded in eliminating the opposition almost entirely. He bought some of them off, created three or four opposition parties. Business is totally under his control. TV used to be free, now it is completely under his thumb.”

“You have to hand it to him,” Ivanishvili continues. “He’s a professional liar. And he pulled the wool over the eyes of a lot of people who came for a short visit and didn’t have the time to go into details.” In his account, Georgia’s image in the West is the handiwork of Washington lobbyists hired by the regime by the dozen, but even that’s coming apart at the seams. “The West realized this a long time ago, both America and Europe, but nobody could care less.”

Ivanishvili claims that “everyone hates [the president] because the country’s gotten so much poorer,” but opinion polls tell a somewhat different story. Georgia is fine with Saakashviliit is just ready to see a new face in government. While Ivanishvili is not running to replace Saakashvili directly, whichever party wins Parliament will be able to elect a prime minister next year when new constitutional reforms take effect. Whether an eccentric billionaire fits the bill is almost beside the point: after 2008’s war with Russia and the subsequent consolidation of power, only a billionaire could breach Saakashvili’s political monopoly. And only an eccentric would want to.

* * *

Bidzina Ivanishvili was born into a mining family in 1956. “Since the whole village was poor, we didn’t realize our own poverty,” he recalls. “I was happy.” After reaching Tbilisi on the 50 rubles he borrowed from a neighbor, he got a job at the only place that didn’t require a residence permit, as a cleaner at the Kamo mechanical foundry. Bidzina, then 17, swept iron shavings in a turnery by day, and studied economics and engineering at night. After graduating with honors and getting promoted to a deputy department head, he left for Moscow: “Russia was the only place you could make a career then.” He learned Russian, of which he hadn’t spoken a word before college, as he went along.

While at graduate school, Ivanishvili met Vitaly Malkin, alongside whom he would spend the next two decades. Both tutored on the sideVitaly taught physics, Bidzina mathbut Malkin had already discovered his inner entrepreneurial streak. “I remember him buying twin-deck tape recorders at Berezka [an exclusive store for Westerners and apparatchiks],” Ivanishvili says, with barely discernible reverberations of reverence in his voice. The two friends bonded after a classic perestroika-era incident. During an attempt to exchange rubles for the vouchers Berezka used as currency, Malkin got scammedsomeone had slipped him a wad of cut-up paper in between the bank notes. “We got to the store,” Ivanishvili recalls, “took the money out of our pocket, and there wasn’t so much as ten percent of what he thought there was. I laughed my head off when I saw him. He would stick his hand back in his pocket for the hundredth time and still couldn’t believe there wasn’t any more money there.” When both of them realized what had happened, Bidzina, as a “proud Georgian,” in his words, suggested they go back and settle matters. Malkin refused; Ivanishvili insisted. “I had a serious fight with those guys,” Ivanishvili remembers with visible relish. “Gave one of them a black eye.” They were surrounded and beaten, but the very sight of two geeky graduate students coming back for their money left a strong impression on the nascent mafiosi. As Ivanishvili puts it, “we lost, but we left that place winners.” The adventure paid off a couple years later, when Ivanishvili and Markin, who by then had their own business, started running into the former grifters from Berezka in expensive private cafes: “I kept seeing familiar faces everywhere… And they would call out, ‘Hey, Boris!,’ like we were friends. That helped us a lot later on, dealing with the criminal world.”

AgroProgress, Malkin and Ivanishvili’s first cooperative venture, appeared in 1988 and traded in computers and push-button (this was back when you had to specify this) telephones. The incongruous name was the legacy of an older cooperative that built greenhouses: it was easier to join an existing one than to register your own. Ivanishvili insists they managed to avoid the mafia by taking the “highbrow” linetheir biggest clients were colleges and research institutes who bought from them wholesale, and racketeers had yet to figure out that computers were a profitable market. By the time they did, around 1990, Ivanishvili, Markin, and one of the two original owners of AgroProgress had moved on and partnered up to open the Rossiiskii Credit bank. (The other AgroProgress owner said he was rich enough already, and continued to build greenhouses. In 2012 Ivanishvili would sell his share in Rossiiskii Credit for $352 million.)

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. Of course, Rossiiskii Credit did have its strategic friendships with ministers, just as it did enjoy the services of a private security firm carved out of the regional organized crime task force (!); and it did participate in the infamously crooked Yeltsin-era privatization auctions, not a single one of which it won and which, Ivanishvili claims, he was actually trying to sabotage. But not even Ivanishvili’s many detractors managed to connect him directly with any of the famous criminals of the time. After meeting Ivanishvili in person, however, this comes across as less of a surprise. The man is genuinely too odd to get mixed up in something so banal.

Unlike Saakashvili, a mercurial charismatic determined to charm at any costmen, women, George W. BushIvanishvili leaves a slightly chilling first impression. He spends the first few minutes of the conversation quietly studying his guest; like many highly successful people, he is convinced he understands the very essence of human nature, and has even written an (unpublished) book on the subject. Obsessed with healthy and natural food, he is said to employ a taster. He is a fan of attachment parenting, a school of child-rearing that lets children sleep with their parents well past infancy. He lets his white Maltese relieve itself on the hardwood floor. Ivanishvili’s family is unusual for Georgia. He’s married to his college sweetheart, an ethnic Ukrainian. Two of his three sons are albinos; his 15-year-old daughter is not, but makes up for it by wearing white pancake makeup of a goth. The middle son, Bera, was shaking gold chains into the camera as a Georgian-language party rapper in Los Angeles; when the campaign started, he returned to Georgia to support his father with political freestyles on YouTube. (Soon, Bera found himself beefing with the pro-government rapper Tsvali [“Bone”], who recorded a polished video about the sweet life under Saakashvili.)

Ivanishvili divides his life between three palatial compounds in three different corners of the country. He used to fly from one to another by helicopterhe has fourbut, as an Ivanishvili employee told me, “Misha took his license away.” Even disregarding heavily armed security, coordinated by an American firm, every one of Ivanishvili’s residences has something of the Bond villain lair to it. The one in Chorvila has a zoo with penguins and a sad kangaroo, which a zookeeper once dragged out into the cold to prove its existence to my colleague. The Tbilisi residence hides paintings by Hirst, Koons, and, most likely, Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chatone of the world’s most expensive artworks, which Ivanishvili bought anonymously from Sotheby’s for $95 million in 2006. In Ureki he has two zebras (a mother and a son, the latter born on the property) and a large collection of parrots. Each residence has its own botanical garden, where Ivanishvili spends most of his free time and whose floral inhabitants he knows by name. “My only hobby is going for walks outdoors,” he tells me. He used to have another onepsychoanalysis: for several years, Ivanishvili financed a psychoanalytical circle. When I ask him whether he’s been to see a therapist himself, Ivanishvili smiles. “No. Actually, all the therapists would tell me was that I was the only healthy person they knew.”

* * *

Later that day, a team of Americans from Penn Schoen Berland, a polling firm conducting surveys for Ivanishvili and advising his campaign, arrives in Ureki. The seven of them enter the “restaurant” in an imposing wedge formation, their faces red from the heat. It’s an intensely cinematic moment, made no less so by the fact that the group’s leader, Craig Smith, in Oxford shirtsleeves and wire-rim glasses, is a dead ringer for Robert Redford. The “Penn” in Penn Schoen Berland is Mark Penn, no longer actively involved but still a partner. For all of PSB’s Clinton associations, Ivanishvili is more likely to be drawn to its work with another candidate: Michael Bloomberg. Or, perhaps, Berlusconi.

Stacks of papers quickly cover the tabletop. Drab PC laptops crack open. The latest stats are encouragingBidzina’s rating has gone up 13 points since February, while Misha’s hasn’t moved in either direction. The public is still only getting to know the candidate39 percent say they know almost nothing about him. Even the people who like him aren’t sure what his program isapart from the fact that he’s not Saakashvili. Sometimes it seems that Ivanishvili himself can’t answer that question.  Georgian Dream’s platform is best described as pure populism grafted onto the basic anti-corruption message. Originally, the coalition’s candidates have flirted with anti-Western rhetoric for “inside use.” When Saakashvili’s people began to pick out the juiciest quotes and feed them to Western reporters (when asked why he prefers Russia to America as a strategic partner, Ivanishvili has apparently said “At least, in Russia, you don’t have to get gay-married”), the nationalist fervor quickly subsided.

The PSB pollsters have tested a few new messages for Ivanishvili, and discovered that people are most concerned about unemployment and health care. “Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs,” Craig says, karate-chopping the table. Almost no one betrays any concern about relations with Russia, unless they affect the country’s territorial integrity. Another unexpected discovery is that going negative on Saakashvili is useless. When focus groups were told negative facts about both candidates, Ivanishvili’s rating fell by two percent, but the president’s didn’t budge. “Anything you can say about Misha, people already know,” Craig smirks. “Attacking him is a waste of time. But if he attacks you, that could hurt.”

Ivanishvili has hated politics all his life; he still winces at the need to make speeches at rallies. The idea of exchanging business for governance first occurred to him in 2008, he says, “when I saw that [Saakashvili] had no legitimacy, because he fell short by at least ten percent in the election.” Having exchanged harsh words with the president over the phone, Ivanishvili began looking for an opposition party he could fund. Over the next three years, he found that such a party didn’t exist: “He’s practically destroyed politics, he’s smeared everyone. Now I see how firmly they’ve wedged themselves in so that nobody else has any chance. You couldn’t even get one person to represent the real opposition in parliament.” The billionaire agonized for a few months more. Twice, he booked a plane to take him out of the country for good, and twice he canceled it. Finally, on October 7, 2011, Ivanishvili announced he would lead the Georgian Dream coalition.

He didn’t have to wait for a response. Five days after the announcement, Ivanishvili’s citizenship was taken away, depriving him of the ability to run for office. (Georgian law bars dual citizenship, and Ivanishvili had a French passport in addition to his native one). After international uproar, only partly financed by Ivanishvili, the government found a novel way out of the impasse. Instead of returning Ivanishvili’s citizenship, it changed the Georgian constitution so that foreigners could now participate in elections. Saakashvili’s representatives claim not to have been aware of Ivanishvili’s French passport until October 7. “I agree, that looks bad,” admits Giga Bokeria, the head of Georgia’s National Security Council. “I agree that it’s not normal to create legislation for an individual situation. This was a controversial, but still a correct decision by the parliament.”

New attacks, meanwhile, came one after the other. Two weeks into the election campaign, masked policemen in civilian clothes stopped an armored car belonging to Ivanishvili’s Cartu Bank, nearly provoking the security guard to open fire. A day later, Ivanishvili’s security guards were forced to hand over their weapons. A month after that, corrections were made to the mortgage law, seemingly custom-made to affect Cartu. An office intended for the coalition was occupied by unidentified men whom the police refused to evict; Ivanishvili sued the police in response. On the day I arrived in Tbilisi, Kakha Kaladze, Ivanishvili’s right-hand man, had all his bank accounts seized on suspicion of illegally financing the opposition.

The most bizarre story of all, however, revolved around satellite dishes. With no access to state TV, Ivanishvili took a characteristic step: he bought a TV channel and installed 40,000 free receivers in villages. Soon the police, handily epitomizing the comedy of power politics in a small country, were going from house to house forcing voters to remove their dishes, and Ivanishvili was fined 80 million lari for trying to buy off the electorate. When the candidate refused to pay that fine, the government seized Cartu. Two weeks later, after Ivanishvili finally relented, the bank was returned. But with a twist: over the previous 14 days, Carta’s temporary owners had handed out 50 million lari in discounted loans to real-estate developers competing with Ivanishvili’s own development company.

In spite of everything, Georgian Dream has a substantial chance of coming true. Weeks before the Monday election, Ivanishvili’s ratings had stabilized about ten points behind Saakashvili’s, which the PSB people spun as dead heat (in their estimation, a sizable number of responders are afraid of voicing their preference for Ivanishvili to strangers, but will pull the lever for him in the privacy of the booth). A few second-tier parties declined to participate in the election to make room for the coalition. The Georgian Dream HQ had shifted its attention from campaigning to combating electoral fraud. “If we don’t let them fake more than ten percent, they have no chance,” Ivanishvili says. “Within ten percent, we’ll be fine.”

And then, the scandal. On September 18, two television channels – including, of course, Ivanishvili’s Channel 9 - broadcast several videos shot by a former guard, since decamped to Belgium, at Tbilisi’s Gldani prison. The footage showed prisoners beaten, tortured and raped. One of the inmates responsible for getting the videos out was Tamaz Tamazashvili, a Georgian Dream supporter with family ties to Ivanishvili’s money machine (a fact that didn’t dilute the videos’ impact). The president professed “shock” at the footage in a televised speech, but to no avail. The first protest rally spontaneously gathered later the same day. While the heads rolledminister of corrections, minister of interiorIvanishvili’s numbers surged. On September 22, the billionaire spoke at a rally in the town of Zugdidi, a Saakashvili stronghold controlled by the relatives of the just-canned interior minister Bacho Akhalaia. 50,000 people showed up. If the pattern holds, on October 2 Georgia might wake up in complete executive disarray and led by a complete legislative amateur.

Any Georgian candidate whose program includes normalizing relations with Russia will be dogged by the question of whether he’s a Putin puppetespecially Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia and for most of his life was known as Boris. “I don’t think that anyone really believes that nonsense anymore, that I’m Russian and not a Georgian patriot,” Ivanishvili says. When I ask him to acknowledge the basic similarities in Georgia and Russia’s political failings, he gives in, but only to a point: “My opponents accuse me of not criticizing Russia. Yes, absolutely, Russia’s democracy problems are roughly the same. But I don’t want to get into Russian domestic politics while we’ve got more than enough of our own. When everything’s straight on your end, when you look good, then you can criticize others.”

The main unknownreally, the gaping hole at the center of all the commotionis the question of what kind of leader Ivanishvili would actually be. Despite his pandering platform, it’s hard not to notice the billionaire’s predilection for authoritarian decisions; perhaps not as harsh as the ones Saakashvili proved capable of, but no more democratic for it. To put it simply, Ivanishvili is used to solving all of Georgia’s problems by himself and at his own expense. And what looks like generosity in the private sector can quickly begin to look like monarchy in the public one.

“It’s a tough question,” Ivanishvili replies when I ask him if he’s ready to come to terms with being a simple civil servant, no matter how high-ranked. He then concentrates and carefully chooses his words, as if he’s only just thought about it for the first time. “After the election might be harder than before the election. A large number of people still see me as the messiah. I don’t make promises I can’t keep. I think I’m a good analyst and I’ve analyzed the situation well. The problem, I agree with you, is that whatever I decide, whatever priorities I set, it’s still going to be difficult. The Georgian people are impatient and emotional. But I’m going to do all I can out of what’s possible, what’s real. But I don’t plan on staying in politics too long. Maybe two years? I’ll put a good team in place.”

The point about two years sounds familiar. The PSB pollsters told me they had already begged Ivanishvili to stop talking about it, reasonably explaining that an offer to serve half a term makes a candidate look less serious. On the long way back to Tbilisi from Ureki, dodging cows and oncoming trucks, I begin to realize the other downside of this pledge. Two years might be long enough to start rebuilding Georgia. But understanding who Bidzina Ivanishvili is will take a lot longer than that. 

**A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of GQ Russia**

Michael Idov is editor-in-chief of GQ Russia