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French Wine And Passports For Georgia's New Billionaire Prime Minister

 Bidzina Ivanishvili
Bidzina Ivanishvili

TBILISSI - A new French prime minister will soon be installed. But not in France - in Georgia, in the former Soviet Union.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has nominated Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire leader of the opposition, as prime minister. For those who didn't know: Ivanishvili had been French by citizenship, not Georgian.

Luckily for him, Georgian MPs will not have to solve a legal puzzle that had kept experts busy since Ivanishvili’s opposition coalition stormed to a surprise victory in the October 1 legislative elections.

The question was whether someone who had been stripped of the Georgian citizenship would be allowed to become head of state. This thorny question was resolved in extremis, when Saakashvili signed a decree restoring Ivanishvili's Georgian nationality on Oct. 16.

Ivanishvili’s Georgian nationality had been revoked in Oct. 2011, when he announced his entry into politics. The official reason was that his triple nationality was not legal: at the time, Ivanishvili had Russian and French passports as well as Georgian.

Ivanishvili subsequently renounced his Russian citizenship to prove his independence from Moscow, but was still not able to restore his Georgian citizenship, although he was born in Chorvila, a village 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. He was left with his French nationality only.

Disputes over Ivanishvili's citizenship were a constant theme during the electoral campaign. His opposition coalition, Georgian Dream, accused the government of political persecution. The government declared that Ivanishvili could easily become Georgian again, simply by writing a letter to the President.

At the end of May, Parliament adopted a constitutional amendment concerning EU citizens born in Georgia, in order to allow the billionaire to vote and run for election without Georgian citizenship. "Political reasons were behind the revocation of Ivanishvili's citizenship, and that was illegal. Afterwards, the wording of the amendment was a problem," explains legal expert Irakli Kabakhidze, associate professor at the University of Tbilisi. "It did not expressly say that someone could become prime minister."

French connections

The controversy over the nationality of the future prime minister overshadowed another question: how did Ivanishvili acquire his French citizenship? In an interview with French magazine L'Express, the billionaire explained that he had lived six years in France, "in the second half of the 1990s," in the suburbs of Louveciennes and La-Celle-Saint-Cloud, outside Paris, where still he owns property. The businessman, who made his fortune in Russia, also bought a residence in Saint-Tropez, on the French Riviera.

When he returned to Georgia in 2003, he "became friends with all the French ambassadors" who came to Tbilisi, especially Eric Fournier, ambassador from 2007 to 2011.

Fournier encouraged Ivanishvili to apply for French citizenship at the beginning of 2008, when the billionaire was still unknown to the public. As ambassador, Fournier gave a favorable recommendation for the naturalization. "It was an easy case," Fournier says. "There was no doubt about how it would go. He is solvent, his wife and children are French citizens, and he speaks French." At the beginning of 2009, Ivanishvili became a French citizen.

But the relations between the French diplomat and the billionaire went beyond the bureaucratic: they became friends. Fournier, not your stereotypical diplomat, is famously energetic...and spontaneous. In August 2008, during the war between Georgia and Russia, he hoisted the French flag at the Sachkere base near Gori, to warn the Georgians of the arrival of Russian troops.

Fournier arrived in Georgia in September 2007. It was his first post as an ambassador. In the theatrical, masculine atmosphere of Georgian public life, he quickly noticed Ivanishvili, who was at the time a quiet philanthropist who avoided the limelight. Among his good works was financing the French School of the Caucasus. The two men met several times to discuss the project, and became close. Their families got together informally, and even spent vacations together.

Yoga and fine wines

The billionaire, with his careful manners, could not be more different from the local Georgian elite. He does yoga, likes psychology, animals and trees, sips Pétrus wine (one of the world’s most expensive), and collects art. "I have a certain admiration for this extremely calm, modest man, with his elegance and good taste," Fournier says.

For the birthday of Bera, one of the billionaire’s albino sons, who is a famous rapper, the French ambassador organized a private session with French rapper MC Solaar.

In the Georgian capital, a small town where everyone knows everyone else, there are no secrets. The diplomat's friendship with Ivanishvili surprised the diplomatic corps and irritated President Saakashvili and his entourage, which includes many French-speakers.

"Fournier became an activist," a Georgian close to the president told us just before the elections. However, Fournier also had privileged access to Saakashvili. In May 2010, after a concert in support of refugees from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the president warmly toasted "the craziest ambassador in Tbilisi," who blushed in pleasure. That was before Ivanishvili entered politics.

The French School of the Caucasus was inaugurated in June 2010 by Saakashvili. Its director is Florence Fournier, the ambassador's wife, who was chosen by Ivanishvili. There was nothing illegal about it, but people gossiped. When the French embassy had to move out of its rundown quarters, the billionaire is said to have offered to finance the renovation. France's foreign office chose to rent instead.

Fournier left Georgia in October 2011, just as Ivanishvili began his political career. He is now director for continental Europe at the French foreign ministry. In this role, he continues to follow Georgian affairs with a passion. Remarks on the origins of Ivanishvili's fortune, made in Russia during the troubled 1990s, make Fournier sigh. He himself was formerly a counselor at the Moscow French embassy, and cites the example of Kakha Bendukidze, one of Saakashvili's closest political allies after the revolution, who was a renowned heavy industry oligarch in Russia.

At the end of his posting in Tbilisi, Fournier wondered if he should leave the diplomatic service and stay in Georgia. He thought of starting a recycling plant, or building a golf resort, but in the end decided not to.

Before he left, Ivanishvili told him: "If you want to come back one day for any reason, just let me know."

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