GEO / RUS       12+

The Economist: Tbilisi’s Count of Monte Cristo

Will Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia's president, "do a Putin" when his second term expires in 2013 and maintain his power by appointing himself prime minister? Bidzina Ivanishvili (pictured), one of the country's richest men, thinks so.
The president, Mr Ivanishvili claims, has a monopoly on power, reinforced by a docile "pseudo-opposition" and control of the media. Mr Saakashvili and his cronies, he contends, control private business in Georgia through use of the tax system and the judiciary. To save his countrymen, Mr Ivanishvili says he wants to enter politics.
This is an unexpected development. Having made billions in Russia in the 1990s, Mr Ivanishvili has always shied away from public life. He has funded several projects across Georgia, including a vast Orthodox cathedral in Tbilisi, the capital, as well as theatres, national parks and medical clinics. He transformed his home village, in the west of the country. Yet, as a profile in Prospect magazine last year shows, he remains a mystery even to his fellow Georgians, let alone to outsiders.
Mr Saakashvili has likened Mr Ivanishvili to the Count of Monte Cristo, the fictional creation of Alexandre Dumas. But the parallel is starting to look less apt. Mr Ivanishvili appears to be motivated by disappointment rather than revenge. Moreover, the fictional count displayed immense cunning in his pursuit of his enemies. Mr Ivanishvili's intention to highlight Georgia's tragedy contains elements of farce.
Take his two open letters, released on October 7th and October 12th. The initial attack on Mr Saakashvili captured the headlines. But both documents are long, rambling and eccentric. In the second, Mr Ivanishvili lists the politicians and journalists with whom he will not co-operate; detailing private conversations from several years ago, he also calls on Vano Merabashvili, the interior minister, to resign. It is a curious way of launching a political campaign.
Then there is the question of Mr Ivanishvili's Georgian citizenship, which the government revoked on Tuesday, barring him from founding a political party in Georgia. Legally, the authorities are on safe ground here. In his first letter, Mr Ivanishvili revealed that he also holds French and Russian citizenship.
By Georgian law no citizen can hold another nationality; if you acquire citizenship abroad, you lose Georgian citizenship automatically. If you want to regain it, you must submit a formal letter-to the president.
Mr Ivanishvili has played into the authorities' hands. The timing of the revocation of his citizenship does smack of pettiness. But Mr Ivanishvili has only himself (and his advisers) to blame.
Inevitably, Mr Ivanishvili's links with Russia have attracted attention. Relations between Russia and Georgia show no signs of improvement; last week, talks over Georgian support for Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organisation broke down in Geneva, again. Government officials have accused Russia of financing the Georgian opposition. Little wonder, then, that one politician from the ruling party responded to Mr Ivanishvili's announcement by branding him a Russian stooge.
But Mr Ivanishvili's French links have been less scrutinised. He is close to France's outgoing ambassador, and has built a state-of-the-art French school in Tbilisi.
The France-Georgia relationship is warming. In a visit to Tbilisi last week, Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, rebuked Moscow for its failure to abide by the terms of the 2008 ceasefire agreement with Georgia that he brokered. "France will not resign itself to a fait accompli," he told cheering crowds. Mr Saakashvili said that the "historic" visit had boosted Georgia's bids to join NATO and the European Union.
This is not the first time that a wealthy Georgian has tried to take on Mr Saakashvili. Badri Patarkatsishvili launched his 2008 bid for the presidency with a similar attack on Mr Saakashvili. Running on the slogan "Georgia without Saakashvili is Georgia without terror", he won just 7.1% of the vote.
If Mr Ivanishvili's nascent co-operation with Irakli Alasania, the most credible opposition leader, leads somewhere, he could have more success. But the Count of Monte Cristo would have urged him to step up his game