TBILISI, Georgia — Beyond his zebra-rearing, art-collecting eccentricities, we don't know all that much about Bidzina Ivanishvili, whose Georgian Dream coalition won a shock victory in Monday's parliamentary elections here. But after his victory news conference, we do know one thing for sure: He's no orator.
In a long meeting with the media in a sweaty room at Georgian Dream headquarters on Tuesday, Oct. 2, Ivanishvili rambled, repeated himself, appeared to make up policy on the spot, and accused a reporter from a major international news agency of being a stooge for his opponent, President Mikheil Saakashvili. He was also oblivious of the fact that Georgian law requires Saakashvili, as president, to approve the prime minister's nomination, at least until the Georgian Constitution changes next year. Initially, he argued forcefully with journalists that this was incorrect, before later conceding the point.
It was an unnerving performance that might give people some cause to wonder just who the man is who has benefited from the wave of popular fury against Saakashvili's reforming but authoritarian rule, and what kind of government he might go on to lead.
Much of the vitriolic election campaign that took place here over the past few months focused on the flaws or benefits of Saakashvili, the hero of the 2003 Rose Revolution. His eccentric opponent was something of a side attraction. Now that Ivanishvili's coalition is going to dominate Parliament, however, the spotlight falls on the oligarch, who lived in complete hermitdom prior to his entry into politics.
Until last year, few people even knew what he looked like. He had given just one interview, to the Russian newspaper Vedomosti, back in 2005, and he shunned all publicity and public events. He moved as stealthily as a cat whenever he left the safety of his contemporary castle of glass on a hill overlooking Tbilisi, disbursing his philanthropic donations to Georgian artists and intellectuals quietly and anonymously.
After he announced in October 2011 that he was the man to challenge Saakashvili, he had to make a quick adjustment to the world of media appearances and interviews. A gift to the profile writer, Ivanishvili often seems like he has wandered straight off the pages of a Gary Shteyngart novel. His political rallies have featured performances by his albino son, who is a rapper. When I interviewed him two months ago, at his Black Sea estate, he arrived driving a red golf buggy, playing "My Way" on the stereo and offering an impromptu tour of his exotic-pet collection before we sat down to chat. There were flamingos, parrots, peacocks, and two zebras. Another reporter who visited one of his other residences discovered a kangaroo and several penguins (it being January, they were swimming around his pond and not being refrigerated, as they are during summer).
"The main problem is that he does not know what love is," Ivanishvili told me when I asked him what he disliked about Saakashvili. In an interview with the Russian edition of GQ, he elaborated: "I love people, unlike Saakashvili, and they feel it," he said. "Saakashvili loves only sex and food."
In the time we spent talking, he came across as a surprisingly affable, if rather bizarre character. He was comfortable talking about how Zelda, his zebra mare, is pregnant, or how there are eight breeds of peacock (he has them all). He was even comfortable talking about his rise from a Georgian villager to a Russian billionaire and how he negotiated the dangers of the 1990s Moscow business climate. He was less cogent, however, on specific policies, concentrating instead on ad hominem attacks on his opponent. (Saakashvili's people, for their part, returned the compliment, describing him as a "weirdo" and a Kremlin stooge.) He also appeared confused by the transition from dealing with business subordinates to dealing with inquisitive journalists. At the end of our interview he waved a hand and said, "You know which bits to use and which bits not to use, right? I'm sure you understand what you should write and what you shouldn't."