By MARIA DANILOVA
UREKI, Georgia (AP) - Georgia's richest man, billionaire and philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili seems to have it all _ a head-spinning fortune, the respect of his country and gleaming, art-filled palaces across the globe, including one where zebras and pink flamingoes roam.
What else could he want?
Political power, it turns out, and that has put him on a collision course with President Mikhail Saakashvili _ his onetime friend and ally.
Since announcing his ambitions a year ago, Ivanishvili has been stripped of his Georgian citizenship and hit with fines of tens of millions of dollars. But he is undeterred in leading his Georgian Dream party into parliamentary elections next week that he hopes will make him prime minister, set to become the country's most powerful job after legislative changes next year.
The outcome will have profound consequences for this small but strategically located South Caucasus nation, which has been the West's most loyal ally in a troubled, energy-rich region.
The 56-year-old Ivanishvili, worth an estimated $6.4 billion, was an early supporter of Saakashvili after he came to power following the 2003 Rose Revolution demonstrations that drove out the corruption-riddled regime of Eduard Shevardnadze. But Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia, gradually became disenchanted and began to fear that his disagreements with Saakashvili could imperil his future.
In an interview with The Associated Press, he suggested that his entry into politics was at least partly to shield him from government pressure.
"When you enter politics, it gives you some kind of protection," he said in his residence outside the Black Sea resort of Batumi. But he insists that his rags-to-riches story also points to a deeper drive to help his country: "A smart, gifted person can do things for himself, but also for his friends, for his village, for his country."
Ivanishvili was the youngest of five children in a hilltop village so poor and remote that a rickety old truck brought supplies just once a month. He often had no shoes and dreamt of owning a bicycle. After earning an engineering degree in the capital Tbilisi, he moved to Moscow, where he received a Ph.D. in labor economy.
When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev launched his perestroika campaign and gradually allowed private entrepreneurship, Ivanishvili and a friend seized the spirit of the times. They began importing personal computers _ rarities in the Soviet Union that cost the equivalent of two or three cars. Sometimes he would approach foreigners at cafes and plead with them to bring computers on their next visit.
In 1990, a year before the Soviet Union collapsed, Ivanishvili and his partners amassed enough money to start a bank, Rossiyskiy Kredit, which became a leading financial institution. Its first office was at a kindergarten, and foreign partners coming for meetings stumbled over miniature toddler toilets. As his bank expanded, Ivanishvili started buying into mining and metals plants across Russia, and then reselling the shares at huge profit.
Skeptics wonder whether it was possible to amass such a fortune honestly, but Ivanishvili insists that he always ran a clean business.
"I never violated any laws," he said. "I never betrayed or deceived anyone."
For years, Ivanishvili was a quiet benefactor of thousands of his impoverished countrymen and also of Saakashvili's government, building schools and hospitals, buying new boots and blankets for the military and, he says, even paying for Saakashvili's inauguration. He also collected art and exotic animals and erected futuristic residences across the country, like a glass-and-steel fortress nestled on a hilltop in the capital Tbilisi.
But Ivanishvili says he broke off ties with Saakashvili after the leader cracked down on opposition protests in 2007, tightened control over media, and Georgia found itself in a brief but disastrous war with Russia in 2008. Saakashvili's government was further tainted in recent days when TV channels funded by Ivanishvili released videos of inmates at a Tbilisi prison being beaten and raped with objects, which sparked angry street protests.
"He has built a tough, authoritarian government while at the same time trying to prove to Europe and America that he is building democracy," Ivanishvili said. "The people have been deceived, including me."
The two men's feud seems highly personal.
Saakashvili denounces Ivanishvili as a Russian stooge, referring to his Georgian Dream coalition as "forces of darkness." The president's camp also accuses Ivanishvili of corrupting Georgian politics and voters with his wealth _ which is equivalent to roughly half of Georgia's GDP.
Ivanishvili, in turn, portrays Saakashvili as a dim-witted former protege who used to call him a "hundred" times a day to ask for advice on running the country.
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