He made his fortune in Russia and then returned to live in his home village. He is rarely seen but his generosity is boundless. Who is the secret Georgian billionaire?by Wendell Steavenson / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Fit for a king: the reclusive billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili has built a modern-day palace overlooking the Georgian capital Tbilisi
On top of a ridge looking down on the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, there stands a castle built of steel and polished concrete. Its turrets are wrapped in an exoskeleton of aluminium bars, and its grounds are dotted with sculptures by Henry Moore and Anish Kapoor. To one side there’s a helicopter pad. Beyond it, a hundred-foot ersatz waterfall tumbles into an aqua-blue swimming pool which fills a gully of the adjacent botanical gardens. Though the gardens are public, ramblers are discreetly deterred by black-uniformed guards hidden among the trees.
When I first lived in Tbilisi in 1998, during the dark, stagnant years of Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime, the castle was still a huge construction site, shrouded in scaffolding–an unfamiliar sight in Georgia. I once asked my friend Kakha what it was going to be. “Oh, a businessman is building a business centre,” he told me vaguely. That’s all anyone knew.
I left Georgia in 2001, but returned every so often to see friends and write articles. Work on the castle was halted and restarted several times. By 2003, Shevardnadze was an old, tired man with a halo of white hair, presiding over a corrupt cabinet and a flatlining economy; Tbilisi was down to four hours of electricity a day. Mass demonstrations after disputed parliamentary elections culminated in the peaceful “Rose” revolution. In January 2004, Mikheil Saakashvili, the young, western-educated, brash and charismatic opposition leader, was elected president with 96 per cent of the vote. “Misha! Misha! Misha!” chanted the crowds, waving red roses. The lights went on immediately. It turned out that the old regime had been selling Georgia’s electricity to Turkey and Armenia. Saakashvili stripped the economy down to free-market basics and investment bubbled up: new shops, restaurants, hotels.
Just after Saakashvili was sworn in, Kakha and I visited the newly-opened Sameba Cathedral, the largest church in the country. At night it was lit up like a giant wedding cake in a spotlight. I marvelled at the vaulting interior and wondered who had paid for such an extravagance. “A Georgian businessman apparently,” said Kakha, “but no one knows who.”