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Georgian Billionaire Launches Leadership Bid
A once reclusive Georgian billionaire is making a bid to challenge the country's leader.
Philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili says he has chosen to sacrifice his privacy to save his country from the grip of authoritarianism.
For years, locals have wondered who lives in the futuristic glass palace that overlooks Tblisi. Now the mystery has been solved. Its once elusive billionaire owner, Bidzina Ivanishvili, says he wants the world to know that Georgia is creeping towards dictatorship - and that he is the man who can save it.
The only privacy he affords himself these days comes at the push of the button. A remote control frosts over the transparent fa?e of his home, shielding the circular swimming pool and giant revolving sphere from any prying eyes. James Bond wouldn't feel out of place in his hi-tech fantasy castle which houses some of his billion-dollar art collection.
It includes works by Monet, Renoir and Lucian Freud. The twist is that many are replicas. Originals are stashed in London where he says they're safer - highlighting how Ivanishvili feels about his country's government under President Mikheil Saakashvili.
"Violence and intimidation has been exerted on me and the opposition for the past 11 months," Mr Ivanishvili said. "Saakashvili does not listen to alternative opinion - the effect of that is that the country has been devastated. He will do everything in order to stay in power."
The philanthropist claims he chartered a plane three times so he and his family could flee Georgia. Now he's running in an election he's confident he can win. He has already put his stamp on the capital, Tblisi, by building a golden-domed cathedral that dominates the cityscape. He claims 99% of his spending goes into projects that benefit the people of Georgia.
The strongest evidence of his charitable ways can be found 80 miles from Tblisi in the village of Chorvila where Ivanishvili was born into a poor family of five children. Poverty pervades the surrounding villages but, as one resident puts it, people here are living a fairytale with Mr Ivanishvili playing the role of benevolent king.
The Demitrashvilis proudly show us the smart spacious home that was gifted to them by the Georgian. They are just one of the many families who've benefited from his generosity. They point out the cooker, TV, central heating - otherwise unattainable items that came courtesy of their beloved Bidzina.
But, back in the capital, not everyone is enamoured. Having made his fortune in Russia, there's a perception that Mr Ivanishvili would in the pocket of the country that only recently Georgia lost a war with. There's also still strong support for the current president.
Shopkeeper Eugene Kandelaki says: "When Saakashvili came to power, gradually things started improving; we were given bread, electricity. Where was Ivanishvili before? He already had his money, why didn't he help us then?"
Georgia's richest man says he has sold his Russian assets and insists he has never met President Putin.
"I haven't been to Russia for 10 years but besides this I am not ashamed that I had my business there. My record is clean."
At a campaign rally, up to 20,000 enthusiastic supporters gather to listen to the man many of them describe as "good". Tales of his philanthropy have spread far and wide - many see him as a saviour. From behind bullet proof glass he charms the crowd who are clearly convinced by him.
President Saakashvili may be more than just a little nervous.