If you’ve asked yourself that question in the weeks since Western darling Mikhail Saakashvili’s party took a drubbing in Georgia’s parliamentary elections, you owe it to yourself to read the FT‘s weekend feature on Bidzina Ivanishvili. To our knowledge, it’s the first good in-depth piece trying to find out more about the mysterious man who made his vast fortune in Russia and who seems to hold the keys to the small Caucasian country’s future. In short, he’s a colorful figure:
Forbes says he is worth $6.4bn – equivalent to nearly half of Georgia’s gross domestic product. He does yoga. He has a private zoo, with zebras and penguins, near his central Georgian birthplace. He has a $1bn-plus art collection studded with Picassos and Freuds. In Tbilisi, he lives in a $40m high-tech palace on a ridge overlooking the city. He has two albino children (out of four); the elder is a rap artist.
Current president Saakashvili, no less colorful himself, also makes an appearance in the article:
Over glasses of amber Satrapezo wine, Saakashvili regaled the four journalists present with tales of his brushes with Russia’s Vladimir Putin (who once vowed to hang Georgia’s president “by the balls”). There was the time he sat between Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator, at a dinner days after former KGB agent Alexander Litvienko was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London, and publicly blamed Putin.“I said, ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich, can I eat from the dish in front of you?’ And Lukashenko said, ‘Yeah, it’s much safer to eat from his dish!’” (Guffaws all round.)Then there’s Putin’s Bond-villain-style parting shot, when the two last met before the 2008 conflict. “Your allies promise you lots of nice things, but they never deliver,” Saakashvili recalled the Russian leader saying. “I don’t promise you nice things, but I always deliver!” (More guffaws.)
It’s a fine piece of writing which also gets the curious reader quickly familiar with the broad outlines of the tumultuous post-Soviet Georgian history. Highly recommended. Read the whole thing.