He collects rare animals, buys priceless art and professes to be a psychoanalyst. Bidzina Ivanishvili, a onetime barefoot village boy turned eccentric billionaire philanthropist, looks poised to become the new leader of Georgia, a strategic South Caucasus country that lives in the shadows of giant neighbor Russia.
President Mikhail Saakashvili, a staunch ally of the West, on Tuesday acknowledged defeat in parliamentary elections and called on Ivanishvili to form the new government. That puts the tycoon on track to be prime minister, which will be Georgia's most powerful job under constructional changes next year.
After making his fortune in tumultuous post-Soviet Russia, Ivanishvili, 56, returned to Georgia shortly before the 2003 Rose Revolution catapulted Saakashvili to power. For years he quietly financed Saakashvili's reforms, buying new shoes for Georgian soldiers, equipping the police force with cars and helping to raise the salaries of lawmakers and ministry bureaucrats so that they wouldn't take bribes.
But his friendship with Saakashivli soured after the U.S.-educated president cracked down on dissent, imposed controls over the media and led his nation into a disastrous 2008 war with Russia.
Ivanishvili says he was "fooled" by Saakashvili and shocked Tbilisi last year by announcing he would challenge his former ally's 8-year grip on power. The president responded by casting Ivanishvili as a Russian stooge and referring to him as a force of "darkness."
The billionaire laughs off the charges, noting his past bankrolling a president who has thrived on being the Kremlin's arch-enemy.
"I was the only free person who can do something with my brains, my money and my name," Ivanishvili told the AP in an interview this summer at his Black Sea residence.
Ivanishvili promises to continue moving Georgia toward membership in the European Union and NATO. At the same time, he promises to fix economic ties with Russia, getting Moscow to lift its ban on Georgian wine and mineral water.
Ivanishvili admits that he faces a tough challenge mending relations with Russia while moving closer to the West.
"Yes, it's hard. Yes, perhaps we will have to spend a lot of time on this," Ivanishvili told the AP. "We need both. We need to strive for that."
Ivanishvili, short, lean and lively, was the youngest of five children, the son of a miner and a stay-at-home mother. "The whole village was poor, not just me," Ivanishvili told the AP. He could not afford shoes and dreamt of a bicycle, which he never got — "but I was an absolutely happy person."
He learned engineering at a university in Tbilisi by night and worked at a steel mill by day. He then moved to Moscow to work on a Ph.D. in labor economy.
Together with a friend, Ivanishvili seized on Mikhail Gorbachev's Perestroika campaign. He first started importing personal computers from the West and then set up a bank, which became a leading Russian financial institution. Its first office was in a kindergarten full of miniature toddler toilets. He then started buying into mining and metals across Russia and then re-selling those shares at large profits. Along the way, he picked up a Russian passport. He left Moscow in the late 1990s to spend several years in France — and became a citizen of that country, too.
Before running for office, Ivanishvili relinquished his Russian citizenship and sold off all of his Russian assets. But, in one of the dramas of the campaign, Saakashvili stripped Ivanishvili of his Georgian citizenship on the grounds he was still French — and Georgia doesn't allow dual nationality. Parliament swiftly passed a law allowing Ivanishvili to run as an EU citizen.
Ivanishvili portrays himself as a quiet family man, who detests parties — lamenting the need to "put on a mask" — and says his greatest pleasure is taking a stroll with his wife Ekaterine, whom he calls his best friend. He also has extravagant hobbies, like collecting exotic animals such zebras, flamingoes and kangaroos, amassing a unique art collection worth $1 billion and building futuristic glass-and-steel palaces across the country.
Upon returning to Georgia in 2003, he rebuilt his native hilltop village of Chorvilla into a personal fiefdom, giving fellow villagers generous monthly allowances and equipping each household with a stove. He has also built schools, hospitals and churches around the country and — in a monarchic move — anonymously paid stipends to the Tbilisi actors he liked.
For his quiet philanthropy and reclusive lifestyle, Saakashvili dubbed him "The Count of Monte Cristo" — after the mysterious hero of 19th century French novel by Alexandre Dumas.
While most impoverished Georgians were happy for his help, some critics said that the giveaways smack of feudalism. They say that investing in social programs and giving people jobs was more effective than simply doling out money and gifts.
He promises quick reforms to boost investment and strengthen democratic institutions.
But while Ivanishvili swears he is a democrat, some of his remarks may already suggest an autocratic streak.
"Getting rid of elite corruption cannot be simpler, if the first person in the country wants it."