After this weekend’s election, when Georgia’s eccentric billionaire prime minister looks out from his futuristic residence high above the capital, he is all but certain to be the undisputed leader of this U.S.-allied country. And then, once his chosen candidate is installed as president, Bidzina Ivanishvili insists it will be time to step down. Ivanishvili, 57, is a lean man who exudes the confidence that comes from a self-made fortune and the belief that he has saved his country from the perceived sins of the outgoing president, Mikhail Saakashvili. In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press, Ivanishvili insisted that he will not try to run the government of this former Soviet republic from behind the scenes. But as Georgia’s richest man, he will retain enormous influence, and how he intends to use it remains one of the biggest questions in the country today. “Of course I will have influence on politics and the government, as every citizen will, but my influence will be bigger,” he told the AP. “But this will be healthy influence, and in no way will it happen from behind the curtains.”
Long known only as a reclusive philanthropist, Ivanishvili was propelled into the prime minister’s post a year ago when his Georgian Dream coalition pulled off a stunning upset against Saakashvili’s party.
For the past year, the two men have shared an uneasy coexistence that will end after Sunday’s election of a new president. Saakashvili is not running due to term limits.
Ivanishvili’s choice, former education minister Giorgi Margvelashvili, is expected to win the election. And a constitutional change that now transfers most power from the president to prime minister will make Ivanishvili the true leader of Georgia.
The billionaire said Thursday that nothing could convince him to change his mind and stay. He plans to nominate the next prime minister before he goes, but has refused to make his choice public before the election.
“That’s the million-dollar question now in Georgia, what he means by leaving,” said Elene Khoshtaria, a political analyst at the non-governmental organization GRASS.