Billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili has ruled Georgia from the shadows for more than a decade, nurturing relations with Moscow after it grabbed swathes of the Caucasus country, while also promising a future inside the EU.

This spring, he declared NGOs enemies from within, reviving a Russian-styled “foreign influence” law dropped last year because of a huge backlash.

The move to reintroduce the measures spurred massive street protests in Tbilisi that have continued for weeks.

A large anti-government protest is expected on Saturday as the bill moves towards approval.

Born into poverty in rural Georgia, Ivanishvili made his fortune in the chaos of 1990s Russia, before returning home as an oligarch to enter politics.

With an estimated wealth of $4.9 billion, the 68-year-old does not like the limelight and is widely seen as pulling the strings of power from the back seat.

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He triumphed in 2012 parliamentary elections, but stood down as prime minister a year later.

While he has not held an official government position since, he dominates the ruling Georgian Dream party and is widely seen as hand-picking his string of successors, both as party boss and prime minister.

Last year he was named “honorary chairman,” a new role that crystallizes his right to select the party’s nominee for prime minister.

The return to frontline politics raised fears he is steering Tbilisi away from the national dream of joining the EU.

Georgia’s President Vetoes Controversial ‘Foreign Influence’ Law
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Georgia’s President Vetoes Controversial ‘Foreign Influence’ Law

Georgian President Zourabishvili on Saturday put a mostly symbolic veto on the "foreign influence" law that sparked protests and warnings from Brussels it would undermine Tbilisi’s European dreams.

He also has not condemned Moscow’s Ukraine invasion, surprising many in a country that went to war with Russia in 2008.

Anti-Western speech

Although Georgia has become a hub for anti-Kremlin Russians, it has also been accused of moving politically closer to Moscow and mirroring some of its repressive tendencies.

Ivanishvili appears intent on passing the “foreign influence” law despite the outcry, seemingly willing to gamble on Georgia’s EU bid.

Last month, he made a rare public speech, offering an impassioned and vehemently anti-Western defense of the law.

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He lashed out at NGOs, calling them a “pseudo-elite nurtured by a foreign country” and blamed Western states – not Russia – for Moscow’s 2008 invasion of Georgia and 2022 attack on Ukraine.

Observers say the speech was a glimpse into the oligarch’s mindset, much of which has been a mystery both inside Georgia and the West.

“He’s always behind the scenes. It’s very rare for him to make such an appearance,” said Natalie Sabanadze, a Georgia expert at the Chatham House think tank.

Ivanishvili had accused the West – which he called the “global war party” – of “only seeing Georgia and Ukraine as cannon fodder.”

Many have said Moscow’s Ukraine invasion has shifted the political leadership of the Black Sea nation closer to the Kremlin.

Peace and stability

“There has been a successful narrative of telling people: ‘Look, we are keeping peace and stability,’” echoing the Kremlin’s line, Sabanadze said.

Tbilisi’s leaders have also entered into spats with Kyiv, once a friendly ally, despite public sentiment among the country’s 3.7 million people being staunchly anti-Russian.

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But at the same time, Ivanishvili still maintains that his goal is for Georgia to join the EU, promising in his speech that Tbilisi will be part of the bloc “by 2030.”

This delicate balancing act has earned him comparisons to Ukraine’s ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, who had tried to steady ties with both Brussels and Moscow, before jeopardizing an agreement with the EU.

October elections

Ivanishvili putting the foreign influence law back on the table shocked Georgia.

“Making the right move at the right time is the ultimate art of politics,” he said of the decision.

Analysts say it is designed to prepare the ground for autumn elections, by which time Ivanishvili hopes the appetite for protests will have been exhausted.

Georgian Dream will be running for a fourth term in October in the country’s first vote under a new proportional representation system.

Since defeating his nemesis Mikheil Saakashvili in 2012 elections, Ivanishvili has presented the party’s rule as saving the country from the chaos of his predecessor.

Saakashvili was arrested upon his return to Georgia from exile in October 2021 and is now in prison.

Yeltsin oligarch

Both men acted to strip each other of Georgian citizenship.

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They have radically different pasts.

Saakashvili had close ties to the US and Ukraine, becoming a sworn enemy of Moscow.

Ivanishvili owes his wealth and career to Russia and was one of a group of oligarchs around President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.

In the dying days of the Soviet Union, Ivanishvili founded a company selling computers with a Russian businessman, making a fortune in the trade before entering the banking sector.

In the early 2000s, he returned to Georgia, where he funded a range of philanthropist projects.

He then created the Georgian Dream party in 2011, winning a parliamentary election the following year and ushering a new political era for the country.

 

By Ola Cichowlas for AFP

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