I am standing in the foyer of my hotel in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. An unshaven young man with an enquiring expression comes up to me and asks, "Thomas?" I nod and he says the one word, "Bidzina."
My assignation with the most talked-about man in Georgia is about to begin.
We climb into a Toyota Landcruiser, ascend to the top of a hill in Tbilisi, and then enter a small private drive. Electronic gates slide open and we are soon outside a soaring glass-and-steel construction, a futurist castle constructed by the Japanese architect Shin Takamatsu, surrounded by a small forest of modern sculpture.
I am ushered into the presence of the man himself. Bidzina Ivanishvili is quite small, a little elfin, immaculately dressed, and smiling. I have never interviewed a billionaire before but his manner is easy. He starts by showing me the pictures on the wall: Egon Schiele, Claude Monet, Lucian Freud. He admits that they are, in fact, high-quality copies; the originals are in London. There is a chatty simplicity about him but also huge self-confidence and self-control.
We sit down, he under a Lucien Freud portrait, and I ask a variation on the same question he has been asked 100 times in the last month: "What motivated you to go into Georgian politics?"
In one month, it is no exaggeration to say, Ivanishvili has turned the politics of his country upside down. Georgia has had a turbulent decade. First, the peaceful Rose Revolution of 2003 swept aside Eduard Shevardnadze's tired old regime. Then, Mikheil Saakashvili became Europe's youngest head of state at the age of 36 and embarked on a series of hair-raising modernizing reforms. The volatile Saakashvili also went head-to-head with Russia over the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, a confrontation that burst out into full conflict in 2008. After defeat in the war, Saakashvili's popularity plummeted, but he clung to power. He and his governing party slowly recovered the initiative and, as the next elections approached in 2012-13, they found themselves again in a commanding position, with a virtual monopoly over the executive, parliament, local government, and the media.