* Rich tycoon was reclusive until entering politics
* Georgian Dream emerges as powerful force
* Battles to shake off accusations he is Russian stooge
By Margarita Antidze
TBILISI (Reuters) - Until a year ago, few people in Georgia knew what billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili looked like.
The 56-year-old tycoon was best known in the former Soviet republic as a free-spending philanthropist with a spectacular home overlooking Tbilisi, and for keeping penguins, kangaroos and lemurs at a private zoo at another home outside the capital.
But he hated publicity and avoided photographers. When he bought Pablo Picasso's "Dora Maar au Chat" for $95.2 million in 2006, he did so anonymously, adding it to an art collection that includes works by Damien Hirst and Roy Lichtenstein.
All that changed last October when he announced he was entering politics, abandoning his privacy for what he says is a love of his homeland and a battle to oust a government he accuses of allowing the gap between rich and poor to widen.
"At the age of 56 it's hard to learn how to be a politician. I don't belong to myself. But the main thing is my country," he said in an interview this summer in his Tbilisi office.
Exit polls showed his Georgian Dream coalition beating President Mikheil Saakashvili's United National Movement in voting on party lists in an election in Monday, but uncertain of winning the race in individual constituencies.
"We will win it for sure," he told Reuters in an interview after the exit polls were published, although Saakashvili's party also claimed victory. "People won't be frustrated."
Ivanishvili made his fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.4 billion, mainly in Russia, with businesses ranging from banking to agricultural products after he started out selling computers.
He has distributed some of his money across the country of 4.5 million people with philanthropic gestures, particularly in his home village of Chorvila and nearby areas.
Residents say he has paved roads, built villagers new homes with water, electricity and gas, provided each household with 200 lari ($120) a month and given newlyweds $3,000.
BATTLES TO SHAKE OFF ACCUSATIONS
Critics have accused him of trying to win votes with his generosity, a charge he denies, and he has also dismissed suggestions that he could be a Russian stooge if he comes to power because of his ties with Georgia's former Soviet master.
Saakashvili has hinted he believes Ivanishvili is doing the bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his bitter foe since a five-day war in 2008. Saakashvili said during the election campaign: "Those who thought they could carry out Putin's orders in our country will be very disappointed."
Ivanishvili says Saakashvili played the "Russian card" to draw attention away from Georgia's problems, and he has responded by selling his assets in Russia.
The tycoon set his sights months ago on becoming prime minister although he has said he would stay in the job for only two years before stepping aside for professional politicians.
He has already reshaped the political scene in Georgia, identifying voters' concerns about poverty and corruption, and posing a genuine challenge for Saakashvili after almost a decade in power since the "Rose Revolution" of 2003 that overthrew ex-Soviet rulers.
Ivanishvili has promised to boost the economy by reducing bureaucratic controls, ending monopolies and taking steps to woo foreign investors. He says he will improve health care and agriculture, make the justice system more independent and ensure the tax and customs departments are more transparent.
Making clear that he is prepared to help fire up the economy by again dipping in to his personal fortune, he says an investment bank he owns will offer loans at special rates.
Critics say his program lacks detail and that he could struggle to hold together a coalition that may be more united by hostility towards Saakashvili than a shared political vision.
Like Saakashvili, he wants Georgia to join NATO and the European Union. But he believes he would be better than Saakashvili at building bridges with Russia, with which diplomatic ties have been frozen since a five-day war in 2008 over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Stability in the area is vital for Western governments as Georgia is an important transit route for gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe that would reduce Europe's reliance on Russia.
(Writing by Timothy Heritage; Editing by Michael Roddy)