Bidzina Ivanishvili: The odd Franco-Russian oligarch out to conquer the Georgian Parliament

Matthieu Ranvier is a French digital entrepreneur based in eastern Europe.

Who is Bidzina Ivanishvili? Ivanishvili is the newest opponent of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, and leader of the opposition movement “Georgian Dream.” Ivanishvili is best known for a pro-Russian tropism that he inherited from his enrichment during the post-Soviet Russia – a public image that fits rather badly as he seeks to unravel for the next Georgian general elections.

Bidzina Ivanishvili is a new figurehead in the political landscape of Georgia, and the leader of “Georgian Dream”, an opposition movement that was launched on April 21. He established himself and built up his fortune in Russia, where much of his financial assets and other sources of wealth still reside. New to Georgian politics, he seeks to assuage his title of oligarch through million dollar PR campaigns and lobbying.

Like any self-respecting oligarch, Ivanishvili made his fortune by exploiting the ruined state of the USSR. Leaving his native Georgia, he moved to Moscow in the 1980s, where he started to engage in a fructuous business- the distribution of electronic equipment. Then came the “big mess” of economic liberalization under the presidency of Boris Yeltsin, and unexpected prosperous times came to those who had knowledge of the principles of capitalism and a free market economy.

In the 1990s, Ivanishvili was one of the people who took advantage of the opportunity to purchase discounted, formerly state-owned companies which were privatized during the great movement of privatization of Soviet assets. Industry, metallurgy, transportation, banking, and real estate- the post-Soviet selling off of government owned businesses established the fortunes of a handful of oligarchs.

However, it remains difficult to assess the extent to which Ivanishvili’s fortune was illegally increased as a result of this prosperous period- comparable to Boris Berezovsky, a refugee in the UK which Russia requests extradition for “large-scale theft” of airline Aeroflot’s assets. What is certain is that the businessman is far to be white as a lily. Ivanishvili is notably inadmissible into the country by the Canadian authorities, for acts of suspected diamond smuggling in Angola.

Even today, Ivanishvili is very present in Russia, where he has had conducted successful business in banking, construction and real estate, agrobusiness, luxury hotels, and the art market. He is also a member of the board for the Rossiyskiy Kredit Bank, a Russian investment bank which has recently obtained approval to open deposit accounts.

His real power lies elsewhere, however. Ivanishvili also owns shares in Russian companies which, through strategic dimensions, are used by the Kremlin as a lever of power. Evaluated at $3 billion, his holdings include Gazprom or Lukoil, for which he would be the first individual shareholder.

These investments not only confirm the wealth of the oligarch, but they also prove his close ties to the Russian government, as evidenced by his position with regard to the Georgian-Russian relations, which he defends, through subtleties of language, Moscow power, and proxy regimes. In Russia, nothing that factors in to the overall economy can be acted upon without Kremlin approbation.

It is difficult to assess the intentions of Ivanashvili, particularly because his fortune was amassed and still has strong ties to Russia, and because his political status is not really fixed. Franco-Russian Ivanashvili lost his Georgian citizenship, which prevents him from running for electoral office. Indeed, the Constitutional law prohibits Georgian citizenship to combine with two others.

Finally, Bidzina Ivanishvili has not always supported the national causes of Georgia, and we remember his erstwhile allies. In 1996, Ivanishvili supported General Lebed, candidate for the Russian presidency and a commander of the Russian Soviet forces, who put an end to Georgian demonstrations in 1989.

As he enters Georgia’s political landscape in 2012, no one has forgotten his past, and many wonder if he is not there to vassal Georgia to Russia.

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