Two new and very different palaces overlook the valley that runs through Tbilisi, Georgia's capital. One is the residence of President Mikheil Saakashvili, a monumental pile modelled on Berlin's Reichstag. The other, home to Georgia's wealthiest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, is a sleek futuristic building designed by a Japanese architect.
Until a few years ago, the two men, despite such divergent architectural statements, shared a vision for Georgia. Saakashvili led the Rose Revolution in 2003; Ivanishvili afterwards provided funds to pay the civil service and shoe the army. Saakashvili seemed untroubled by such dependence. “He has no political ambitions. None at all,” Saakashvili said of Ivanishvili in 2008.
That has changed: Ivanishvili is leading the opposition in parliamentary elections on 1 October. His decision to enter politics has transformed the relationship. Three days after forming a coalition – Georgian Dream – last October, Ivanishvili's Georgian citizenship was revoked; his status remains unresolved. The opposition also accuses Saakashvili and his associates of fining Ivanishvili's businesses and campaign, intimidating supporters and depriving Georgian Dream of media access. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in late August issued a very critical statement; the EU felt the need on 3 September to express concern.
The government's justifications have often sounded hollow. Its statements about Ivanishvili himself range from innuendo about his connections in Russia – where he made his wealth – to what a diplomat formerly posted to Tbilisi describes as “Bolshevik” language. It is an approach that feeds off Ivanishvili's mysteriousness. Until recently, virtually nothing was known about him, even though Forbes rates him as the 153rd wealthiest man in the world, with a fortune of $6.4 billion (€5bn). There are barely a dozen, very fleeting, pre-2010 references to him online in English. Within Georgia, his face was known only to a few associates and friends.
The former invisibility of Ivanishvili the businessman leaves Ivanishvili the politician fighting on four fronts: to dispel ignorance of himself; to counter the accusations against him; to explain why he entered politics; and to prove that he can transform himself into a politician.
His gradual self-revelation uncovers a Soviet and post-Soviet rags-to-riches story. Education helped take him away from the mines and metal-working shops of his poor rural region to an economics doctorate in Moscow. Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika gave him a chance to make money from selling phones and computers; that trade gave him the capital to co-found a bank, Rossiisky Kredit, in 1990.
But in 2002 he left, settling in France (which gave him a passport in 2010) and, in 2003, in Georgia. For the next seven years, his philanthropy was ubiquitous – funding artists, scientists, public buildings and public works – but he himself was invisible. The few details, now confirmed, that surfaced added to the enigma: he owns zebras, collects incredible modern art, and two of his four children are albinos.
The government has so far failed to present evidence to justify its aspersions. No political or financial connection with Russia's President Vladimir Putin has been demonstrated. There is a specific claim that he once played a role in Russian politics, but that dates to the mid-1990s (Boris Berezovsky, arguably then Russia's most powerful oligarch, says that Ivanishvili helped convince the third-placed candidate in the 1996 presidential election, Aleksandr Lebed, to support Boris Yeltsin). And if the money was so tainted, why was it previously acceptable to the government? And what of the allies of Saakashvili who – like most wealthy Georgians – made their money in Russia?
Still, the linkage to Russia is tricky for Ivanisvhili. He has surrendered his Russian passport, and has been selling interests in Russia, which ranged from pharmacies to precious metals. His team says he sold Rossiisky Kredit in the spring, and now has no shares in Gazprom.
That financial sacrifice amplifies the question about why a secretive, low-profile man who weighs risks thoroughly has entered politics now. The low profile, says a friend, reflects his personality and concern for his security: his brother was kidnapped in the 1990s. The entry into politics, Ivanishvili himself says, was spurred by anger at Saakashvili's autocratic streak and a sense that he had a duty to counter him.
The political views that he has unveiled are, according to Tedo Japaridze, a foreign-policy adviser to Ivanishvili, built on “realism, pragmatism and...a unique sense of regional realpolitik” – Georgia should stop trying “to play big global games” that result in it being “a thorn and irritant in these games”. It should, rather, be “a bridge, a facilitator or a hub” in the region.
Japaridze was Saakashvili's first foreign minister, and Ivanishvili's team includes other former officials, as well as long-standing members of the opposition. But it also includes a grab-bag of local celebrities, some of whom have proved provocative. Some have made “homophobic and Turko-phobic” comments that, says an independent Georgian, Ivanishvili should have disowned. He also worries that Ivanishvili himself is “thin-skinned” about criticism. For several, Ivanishvili's declared intention of leaving politics after one or two years is surprising and cause for unease.
That plan also raises the possibility that Ivanishvili will prove a fleeting phenomenon, an atypical Georgian – he practises yoga, eats and drinks lightly, and keeps his home closed – who aspired to lead a country that, as Japaridze and others suggest, likes late nights, drama and domineering personalities.
To have a chance of triumphing (and the poll figures are disputed), Ivanishvili may need to prove Japaridze right when he says that “the uniqueness [of Ivanishvili] is that he is not unique”. Ivanishvili, who lives in his native village and married a girl from a neighbouring village, is “a villager who stands firmly on both feet”. Even in the easiest of circumstances, a man with a personality, lifestyle and wealth so unlike that of ordinary Georgians might struggle to convince voters that he thinks like them. But this is not an easy campaign and Ivanishvili gave voters only 12 months to get to know him.
Whatever the result, this campaign has crystallised bigger issues: that Georgian politics remains deeply polarised and dominated by exceptional figures, and that the Saakashvili government will emerge tarnished from the campaign. It has also shown that, as long as Ivanishvili remains in Georgia, no president can look up at Ivanishvili's palace and discount him as a political force.