‘Putin’s puppet’: Who is billionaire oligarch behind Georgia unrest?

World

He is the puppet master of Georgian politics – a man of fabulous wealth and extraordinary power. 

And Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili is the focus of intense opposition as unrest sweeping his country reaches boiling point.

From humble origins, he left Georgia to accumulate immense wealth in Russia through close ties with Putin’s chosen few, the kleptocratic elites who have helped themselves to the country’s riches in return for complete loyalty to the Kremlin.

He is said to be worth at least $5bn (£3.98bn), a third of his country’s GDP.

After returning to Georgia, he acquired enormous influence in his homeland.

He says he has withdrawn from frontline politics but, as chairman of the Georgian Dream party, Ivanishvili is the power behind the throne, an eminence grise, say his critics, operating from the shadows as the puppet master of the country’s power struggles.

He chooses the country’s prime ministers. Three of the last four have been former managers of his companies.

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Georgia’s interior minister is a former bodyguard of Ivanishvili, its former health minister was his wife’s dentist, an education minister one of his children’s maths tutors. The list goes on.

To many, Ivanishvili’s lifestyle might sound more James Bond villain than tycoon.

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Police ‘stamping’ on Georgia protesters

In the hills overlooking the capital Tbilisi, he has a futuristic mansion said to have a shark-infested pool.

He collects other exotic animals, including kangaroos and lemurs, and has a penchant for exotic trees – uprooting rare 135-year-old specimens with huge controversy and hauling them off to his tree park.

But it’s his alleged ties with Russia that are the most controversial and murky.

Many Georgians say they are sceptical of his claims to have sold his businesses and ended his investments in Russia years ago.

Image:
Police have been facing off against protesters in Georgia. Pic: Reuters

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Ivanishvili and his Georgian Dream party are trying to push through parliament a new law that has caused the biggest unrest in Georgia in years.

The ‘foreign agent’ bill, as it’s known, would give the government more control over the media and human rights organisations. It is modelled on laws Putin has used to tighten his own authoritarian grip on Russia.

Tens of thousands of Georgians have demonstrated against the bill.

With its final reading due this week, the unrest is heading for a crunch point.

Protesters are determined to thwart the man they see as Putin’s puppet. They believe if he prevails he will end their dream of closer ties with Europe and eventual membership of the European Union.

At stake is both Georgia’s national identity and Vladimir Putin’s ability to maintain control and influence in this former Soviet republic.

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