Georgian tycoon sells assets, eyes parliamentary vote

Georgian billionaire opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili is selling his Russian assets to focus on his bid to oust President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party

Georgian tycoon sells assets, eyes parliamentary vote

Georgian billionaire opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili is selling his Russian assets to focus on his bid to oust President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party in a parliamentary election in October.

Ivanishvili, a once-reclusive tycoon whose wealth has been estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.4 billion - equal to nearly half Georgia's economic output - launched a political movement last year and has called for Saakashvili to resign.

Having built his business empire in Russia where he is known as Boris, his initiative has shaken up politics in Georgia, the strategically located Caucasus state which lost a five-day war against its northern neighbour in 2008.

Saakashvili has denounced Ivanishvili as a Kremlin stooge, and the tycoon has responded by vowing to sell all his holdings in Russia, comprising real estate, a bank, an agroholding and a pharmacy chain.

"I've sacrificed everything ... to enter politics. It was the only right decision as my goal is bigger than anything else," Ivanishvili told Reuters in an interview at the office of his Georgian Dream movement - a coalition of opposition parties.

"I'm surprised how calm Saakashvili's supporters are. They go on with their ideology, but it will all end in October."

Ivanishvili, 56, poses a challenge to the pro-western course taken by Saakashvili in eight years as leader of Georgia, a nation of 4.7 million on Russia's restive southern flank that is a strategic corridor for exports of Caspian oil to Europe.

"He united almost the whole protest electorate around himself and created a new political reality in Georgia," one independent analyst, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.

Ivanishvili plans to hold his first street rally on May 27 in the capital's central square and says it will mark the official start of his election campaign. "We want to demonstrate that there is no fear in our society," he said.

According to recent polls conducted by western institutes and companies, Georgian Dream, which is eligible to take part in the election, lags the ruling United National Movement by around 20 percentage points.

The government stripped Ivanishvili of his Georgian citizenship last year because he also held French and Russian citizenship. Ivanishvili has given up his Russian passport and said he would renounce his ties to France after obtaining a Georgian passport.

The Justice Ministry has denied his request for citizenship, but indicated that he can apply again using a different procedure. Parliament is making amendments to give any European Union citizen who spends at least five years in Georgia the right to seek election - which would allow Ivanishvili to run.

Critics accuse Saakashvili, the 44-year-old leader elected after the 2003 'rose' revolution, of curbing freedoms and leading Georgia into war with Russia in August 2008. Georgian forces were routed in five days and Moscow went on to recognise breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states.

Selling out

Ivanishvili has sold almost all his assets in Russia and said he was satisfied with the sale process, which he expected to be completed by the end of May.

"Taking into consideration the current situation (on the market), I think I've sold everything at a normal price ... I'm satisfied with all deals," he said.

"Prices were not the highest, of course, due to the ongoing global crisis and especially in Russia, and because I was rushing to sell as quickly as possible."

The businessman sold his real estate assets to Russian property group Bin for $980 million and bank Rossyisky Credit to a group of private investors for $350 million.

A deal to sell his loss-making pharmacy chain "Doctor Stoletov" for $60 million is about to be completed.

Agriculture company Stoilenskaya Niva is the only remaining asset the businessman plans to sell, expecting to get $250-$300 million for it, or "approximately what I invested."

Ivanishvili said his holdings in Russia were a third of his total assets, the rest of which were in banks and stocks abroad.

"Business in Russia was a very interesting and difficult process for me," he said. "But I never violated the law, my business in this country was always transparent and I always worked honestly and sincerely."

Reuters

Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Mayıs 2012, 16:04

Muhammed Öylek

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