Georgia′s next prime minister is enigmatic figure | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 04.10.2012
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Georgia's next prime minister is enigmatic figure

Parliamentary elections in Georgia have brought the opposition to power, with Bidzina Ivanishvili as the country's designated prime minister. The country's most powerful politician is an enigmatic billionaire.

BidzinaIvanishvili has French and Russian citizenship, but he no longer holds a Georgian passport. He has a private zoo at home, collects contemporary art and has supplied the Georgian armed forces with both their boots and their tanks.

People know quite a bit about the designated new billionaire Prime Minister of Georgia - but on another level, Ivanishvili remains a mystery to many of his countrymen and especially to foreign observers.

Public information reveals a picture that confirms every possible stereotype of a successful career in the post-Soviet era. Ivanishvili was born into a poor miner's family in 1956 in Georgia's Imereti region as the youngest of five children. A good and diligent scholar, the young man graduated high school and then university in Tbilisi before going to Moscow, where his career took off.

In 1990, he set up Rossiysky Kredit; he still holds shares in the bank today. Ivanishvili finally made his fortune in metals trading and property - immense earnings that catapulted him to rank 153 on the Forbes list of the world's richest people. Forbes estimates his wealth at about $6.4 billion (4.9 billion euros).

Modern building in hills Foto: Ulf Mauder dpa

Ivanishvili's Glass Palace stands out among the hills

Penguins and sculptures

The self-made billionaire alternately lives in his Georgian hometown of Chorvila and on the outskirts of the capital, Tbilisi, where he is said to run a private zoo complete with penguins, lemurs and a zebra. The hillside property with its futuristic steel-and-glass house, nicknamed the "glass palace," is also home to numerous replicas of artworks by British sculptor Henry Moore. According to media reports, the originals are stored in an underground vault in Britain.

Michael Weichert of Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation points out many Georgians have high expectations of their new prime minister. For them, Ivanishvili is "a Messiah who will let them participate in his wealth," Weichert told Deutsche Welle. "For the last ten years, Mr Ivanishvili shone in his role as a benefactor."

The designated prime minister's good deeds reportedly include a gift oven for every household in his home town and a raise for public employees out of his own pocket - to discourage corruption.

President of Georgia Mikhail Saakashvili . (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)

Saakaschvili underestimated the tycoon

Expectations and reservations

German Greens politician Viola von Cramon characterises the Georgian billionaire as "a good listener who handles criticism well." She told Deutsche Welle he appears to be "interested and open to dialogue."

A career going from rags to riches in just a few years raises questions. Most newly rich in Russia and other former Soviet states are suspected of more or less close ties to criminal or corrupt political circles. But Ivanishvili doesn't appear to fit that mold. In an article about the Georgian entitled "The Good Oligarch," the writer Wendell Steavenson quotes Eric Fournier, the French ambassador to Tbilisi, who describes him as the only oligarch with "a clean slate."

All the same, uncertainty remains with regard to Ivanishvili's fortune: how did he make it, who helped him and to whom might he be indebted? Iris Kempe worked for Germany's Heinrich Böll Foundation in Tbilisi and she is skeptical: Ivanishvili is an "enigmatic personality with many unclear issues," she told Deutsche Welle.

But it's easy for people to be misled: he supported President Mikhail Saakashvili following the Rose Revolution. In 2008, Saakashvili was still saying that Ivanishvili "has no politicial ambitions. None at all."

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