Georgia: Kings of the Hill at War
Two eccentric, hillside glass manors dominate downtown Tbilisi and, now, Georgian politics. On one side of the Mtkvari River stands the not-so-humble abode of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, topped by a glass egg of a dome. On the other side rises a cosmic monstrosity complete with a helicopter pad and giant funnels, encased in a glass and steel membrane. It is the castle of the mysterious billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, Saakashvili’s new arch-nemesis.
The two men can see each other from their respective vantage points, and they don’t like what they see.
But this is no ordinary feud, to be resolved by a quick joust or duel. The castle lords’ battle could affect the future of the entire country.
The billionaire, once described by Saakashvili as “the Count of Monte Cristo,” has vowed to kick Saakashvili out of the presidential palace.
Saakashvili's camp, in turn, has not sat quietly, watching the billionaire, now stripped of his Georgian citizenship, raise an army of the discontented. Their response seems to be clear: Is it war Ivanishvili wants? Then war he shall get.
On October 18, police confiscated a vehicle that carried cash meant for Ivanishvili’s Kartu Bank. Six tellers and security attendants in the vehicle were brought in for questioning; they were later released, but the police kept the cash. Footage featuring neatly aligned stacks of bills, somewhat akin to a modern art exhibit, was soon released. All the dollars, euros and laris -- numbering in the millions, according to Ivanishvili -- apparently face money laundering charges. The Central Bank is currently looking into Kartu Bank's activities. Then, there's the less-noticed news. A friend of the billionaire’s rapper son, Bera Ivanishvili, was arrested this week on reported drug charges after Ivanishvili, Junior released a political music video ("Georgian Dreams") that called for a change of government.
Some cash-strapped opposition parties argue that such events amount to illegal attempts by the government to sink the Ivanishvili ship.
But the reclusive tycoon himself also faces a hearty dose of skepticism. Some local commentators find Ivanishvili as bizarre as his Tbilisi residence, and doubt that the billionaire, who made his money in Russia during the murky 1990s, can walk the walk when it comes to democracy.
In a to-do list shared with all of Georgia, Ivanishvili avoided mention of the country’s NATO aspirations and criticism of Georgia’s Public Enemy Number One, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, pointed out pundit Ghia Nodia, a former Saakashvili education minister.
Yet, despite the mounting pressure, Ivanishili apparently does not intend to escape from his castle via helicopter. A much-anticipated video interview, recorded in the glass fortress, is expected to hit the Internet soon.