UREKI, Georgia (AP) — Georgia's richest man, billionaire and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili seems to have it all — a head-spinning fortune, the respect of his country and gleaming, art-filled palaces across the globe, including one where zebras and pink flamingoes roam.
What else could he want?
Political power, it turns out, and that has put him on a collision course with President Mikhail Saakashvili — his onetime friend and ally.
Since announcing his ambitions a year ago, Ivanishvili has been stripped of his Georgian citizenship and hit with fines of tens of millions of dollars. But he is undeterred in leading his Georgian Dream party into parliamentary elections next week that he hopes will make him prime minister, set to become the country's most powerful job after legislative changes next year.
The outcome will have profound consequences for this small but strategically located South Caucasus nation, which has been the West's most loyal ally in a troubled, energy-rich region.
The 56-year-old Ivanishvili, worth an estimated $6.4 billion, was an early supporter of Saakashvili after he came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution demonstrations that drove out the corruption-riddled regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. But Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, gradually became disenchanted and began to fear that his disagreements with Saakashvili could imperil his future.
In an interview with The Associated Press, he suggested that his entry into politics was at least partly to shield him from government pressure.
"When you enter politics, it gives you some kind of protection," he said in his residence outside the Black Sea resort of Batumi. But he insists that his rags-to-riches story also points to a deeper drive to help his country: "A smart, gifted person can do things for himself, but also for his friends, for his village, for his country."
Ivanishvili was the youngest of five children in a hilltop village so poor and remote that a rickety old truck brought supplies just once a month. He often had no shoes and dreamt of owning a bicycle. After earning an engineering degree in the capital Tbilisi, he moved to Moscow, where he received a Ph.D. in labor economy.
When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched his perestroika campaign and gradually allowed private entrepreneurship, Ivanishvili and a friend seized the spirit of the times. They began importing personal computers — rarities in the Soviet Union that cost the equivalent of two or three cars. Sometimes he would approach foreigners at cafes and plead with them to bring computers on their next visit.
In 1990, a year before the Soviet Union collapsed, Ivanishvili and his partners amassed enough money to start a bank, Rossiyskiy Kredit, which became a leading financial institution. Its first office was at a kindergarten, and foreign partners coming for meetings stumbled over miniature toddler toilets. As his bank expanded, Ivanishvili started buying into mining and metals plants across Russia, and then reselling the shares at huge profit.
Skeptics wonder whether it was possible to amass such a fortune honestly, but Ivanishvili insists that he always ran a clean business.
"I never violated any laws," he said. "I never betrayed or deceived anyone."
For years, Ivanishvili was a quiet benefactor of thousands of his impoverished countrymen and also of Saakashvili's government, building schools and hospitals, buying new boots and blankets for the military and, he says, even paying for Saakashvili's inauguration. He also collected art and exotic animals and erected futuristic residences across the country, like a glass-and-steel fortress nestled on a hilltop in the capital Tbilisi.
But Ivanishvili says he broke off ties with Saakashvili after the leader cracked down on opposition protests in 2007, tightened control over media, and Georgia found itself in a brief but disastrous war with Russia in 2008. Saakashvili's government was further tainted in recent days when TV channels funded by Ivanishvili released videos of inmates at a Tbilisi prison being beaten and raped with objects, which sparked angry street protests.
"He has built a tough, authoritarian government while at the same time trying to prove to Europe and America that he is building democracy," Ivanishvili said. "The people have been deceived, including me."
The two men's feud seems highly personal.
Saakashvili denounces Ivanishvili as a Russian stooge, referring to his Georgian Dream coalition as "forces of darkness." The president's camp also accuses Ivanishvili of corrupting Georgian politics and voters with his wealth — which is equivalent to roughly half of Georgia's GDP.
Ivanishvili, in turn, portrays Saakashvili as a dim-witted former protege who used to call him a "hundred" times a day to ask for advice on running the country.
An August opinion survey by U.S.-based National Democratic Institute suggested that Saakashvili's United National Movement leads the polls with 37 percent support, while Georgian Dream has 12 percent. But Ivanishvili claims he has momentum on his side, with support surging since the release of the prison rape video.
So far Ivanishvili's political career brought him nothing but trouble.
He was stripped of Georgian citizenship a year ago, shortly after he announced his entry into politics. The official reason was that he also had a French passport — and Georgia prohibits dual nationality. Even though parliament then adopted a law allowing Ivanishvili to run for office as an EU citizen, Ivanishvili said the loss of Georgian citizenship was deeply upsetting, especially considering the $1.5 billion he says he has spent on charity here.
The government then followed by fining him tens of millions of dollars over campaign funding violations, saying that distributing satellite TV dishes and offering a fleet of cars to his party amounts to vote-buying according to recently passed electoral laws that ban corporate donations to parties.
Some observers said the changes were necessary. Others, including Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights, said the legislation was aimed at preventing "certain individuals" from running in the upcoming vote — an apparent reference to Ivanishvili.
Ivanishvili bristles at Saakashvili's accusations that if elected he would serve Russia, not Georgia — calling such suspicions "laughable." Ivanishvili renounced his long-held Russian citizenship before launching his political career and has sold off his Russian assets to sever his financial ties with Moscow. Most of his assets are now in Western banks and about $1 billion in art.
Some experts agree that he's his own man, pointing to the fact that he had funded Saakashvili, the Kremlin's arch-foe, for years.
"All the evidence suggests that he is no one's project but his own," said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus expert with the Carnegie Endowment. At the same, time the Kremlin is likely to court Ivanishvili, eager to have someone unseat Saakashvili.
Ivanishvili promises aggressive and quick reforms that would strengthen democratic institutions and prompt foreign and local businessmen to invest in the economy. He intends to pursue a pro-Western policy and one day bring Georgia into NATO, while at the same time unfreezing economic ties with Russia — something he himself acknowledges would be a very complicated task. "You just need to wait for the right time and without doubt improve relations with Russia," Ivanishvili said.
Ivanishvili vows that he will not be corrupted by power, noting that as a businessman he only promoted those who were not afraid to argue with him. But when describing how he would reform Georgia, he revealed some monarchic overtones.
"In such small countries," Ivanishvili said, "everything depends on one person, everyone else follows immediately."