Man hates publicity now becomes top legislator

Man hates publicity now becomes top legislator

TBILISI - Reuters
Man hates publicity now becomes top legislator

Ivanishvili addresses supporters as they celebrate exit poll results in Tbilisi. REUTERS photo

Until a year ago, few people in Georgia knew what billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili looked like.
The 56-year-old tycoon was best known in the former Soviet republic as a free-spending philanthropist with a spectacular home overlooking Tbilisi.

He had hated publicity and avoided photographers. All that changed last October when he announced he was entering politics, abandoning his privacy for what he has said is a love of his homeland and a battle to oust a government he accuses of allowing the gap between rich and poor to widen.

Ivanishvili made his fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.4 billion, mainly in Russia, with businesses ranging from banking to agricultural products after he started out selling computers. Critics have accused him of trying to win votes with his generosity, a charge he denies, and he has also dismissed suggestions that he could be a Russian stooge if he comes to power because of his ties with Georgia’s former Soviet master.

President Mikheil Saakashvili has hinted he believes Ivanishvili is doing the bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his bitter foe since a five-day war in 2008. Ivanishvili says Saakashvili played the “Russian card” to draw attention away from Georgia’s problems, and he has responded by selling his assets in Russia. Ivanishvili has promised to boost the economy by reducing bureaucratic controls, ending monopolies and taking steps to attract foreign investors. He believes he would be better than Saakashvili at building bridges with Russia, with which diplomatic ties have been frozen since the 2008 war over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.