From The Jerusalem Post:
TBILISI – Nestled high in the forested hills above Georgia’s capital city is a futuristic-looking glass home that looks like it popped right out of a James Bond movie: the redoubt for some mysterious villain aiming to subjugate the world.
But it is not.
Rather, this is the home and office of Georgia’s new Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a fabulously rich man listed – with a net worth of $5.3 billion – as No. 229 on Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest people.
The $50 million complex has a cafeteria built into a mirrored sphere, an indoor pool, sitting areas covered in leaves, walls bedecked with art (his art collection is estimated at $1b.), and American artist Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE sculpture greeting visitors from a grove of trees just above the entrance to the compound’s office wing.
Ivanishvili is Georgia’s wealthiest man, having earned his fortune in Russia’s pre-Vladmir Putin privatization days when he acquired mining and metal assets. Since October he is also its most politically powerful man, having defeated his bitter political foe President Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement Party in a hotly contested election.
It is presently an awkward political time in Georgia, a transition period, with the country lurching from a presidential system to a parliamentary one. The final turnover is scheduled for October, and in the meantime the two fierce opponents must share power together.
“We have the bare minimum of cohabitation,” Ivanishvili told The Jerusalem Post in a simply furnished room just off the entrance to the office wing of his mansion. “Of course it would have been better to have warmer and better relations.”
The political wounds run deep.
Ivanishvili’s backers accuse the president of having abused power, illicitly amassed fortunes, tortured opponents, quashed dissident and led the country into a disastrous war with Russia in 2008 that led to the loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Saakashvili’s backers say Ivanishvili is a quirky oligarch (he has a zoo of penguins and zebras), and a Russian stooge who is taking vengeance on his political rivals, including arresting – Ukrainian style – former prime minister Vano Merabishvili, a close Saakashvili ally.
But Ivanishvili did not invite the Post and another Israeli daily to his home last week for separate interviews to discuss domestic issues. On the contrary, the prime minister – who will arrive in Jerusalem Monday for a two-day trip – is keen on promoting his trip, and keener still on promoting ties with Jerusalem. One rubs one’s ears almost in disbelief hearing the praise he heaps upon Israel and the Jewish people.
Could it be true? Is there really a world leader out there who loves Israel this much, who thinks so highly of us? “The prime minister,” said Ambassador to Georgia Yuval Fuchs, “is leading a very friendly position toward Israel and the Jewish people, a position to which there is no disagreement even in the Georgian opposition.”
Sometimes, the ambassador said in the coffee shop of a Tbilisi hotel, “small countries can be important in certain contexts.”
He was thinking of Gabon, which loomed large – and positively from Israel’s point of view – when it came to stopping a Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the UN Security Council in 2011. Ivanishvili’s upcoming visit, Fuchs said, was the “engine” for strengthening ties to a country important to Israel economically, diplomatically and culturally.
And Israel, he pointed out, is important to them. To hear Ivanishvili talk, Israel is very, very important.
Georgian-Israeli ties have seen their ups and downs over the last decade. There was a boom period in the early 2000’s as Saakashvili was furiously orienting Georgia’s polices to the West. This was a period when some ex-IDF officers helped train the Georgian army and Israel provided the Georgian military with arms, including drones that infuriated the Russians.
That ended in 2008 with Georgia’s ruinous war with Russia. Since then, both Georgian and Israeli officials say, there has been little if any military cooperation, with Israel careful not to do anything to antagonize the Russians.
Then the ties nosedived in 2010 with the arrest and imprisonment of Israeli businessmen Roni Fuchs and Ze’ev Frenkel, on what Israel viewed as trumped-up bribery charges. The ties were only restored in 2011 after Saakashvili pardoned the two on “humanitarian” grounds.
Now Ivanishvili wants to see the ties take off again, which is why Israel is the first country outside of Europe and his immediate neighborhood that he will visit since taking office.
This trip is good for him on a number of different levels.
Firstly, it helps him gain legitimacy and respectability in a world still skeptical of him and the direction he hopes to steer Georgia. Secondly, a trip to Israel is always popular domestically with a people that is genuinely fond of and respects Israel. Jews have lived in Georgia since the destruction of the First Temple, and there are an estimated 120,000 Georgian Jews now living in Israel. And, thirdly, Israeli and Jewish investors and technology are very much in demand in the country’s small and struggling economy.
As for Israel, Georgia is a small (4.5 million people), poor country that has significance for three primary reasons: first, because of the long, warm ties between Georgians and Jews; second, because Israel can use all the friends it can get in the world and in international forums; and, third, because of Georgia’s strategic geography.
Georgia sits on the Black Sea, and through its territory via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline flows fully half of all of Israel’s oil, oil originating in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Also, Tbilisi is only 1,000 kilometers from Teheran, with all that signifies and implies.
What follows are excerpts of the Post’s interview with Ivanishvili, which was conducted through an interpreter.
Israel is your first trip abroad since you were elected, except for Brussels, Strasbourg and a couple of your immediate neighbors. Why?
This is not a coincidence. I have a special relationship toward Israel, and toward the Jewish people. I don’t hide this, and always state it with pleasure. It is an exceptionally talented nation.
I respect talented people in general, of course. And [this is a reason for] my special love, friendship and respect. The main factor is that the Jewish people are talented. This has been proven over the centuries, throughout the world.
Second is our history of coexistence for 26 centuries.
Georgians and Jews always lived together. This was an extraordinary case. There has not been a single case of dissatisfaction throughout the centuries between Georgians and Jews. The Jewish community was distinguished here in Georgia. There is much nostalgia toward the Jewish community. After the Israeli state got stronger and stronger – and we welcome that fact – we lost our brothers, the Georgian Jews, who went to Israel.
Look how Georgian Jews were living here. You cannot find a single Jew here in Georgia who did not know the Georgian language, or Georgian culture. They knew Georgian culture well. They were part of Georgian culture and lived in it for centuries.
You could not distinguish them from Georgians. They felt Georgia as their homeland and felt much respect toward Georgia.
I spent time in Russia, and have many Russian Jewish friends. I lived in France and know French Jews also. You cannot find any other country or land where Jews were able to contain and preserve their own nationality so much as they did in Georgia.
I am not afraid to acknowledge talent when I see it.
Many envy talent in other people, and behave in a bad way when they are envious and jealous. I respect talent a great deal and am not afraid to acknowledge it. This is where my exceptional respect [for the Jewish people] comes from.
What can Israel give Georgia? What do you hope to achieve with your visit? My biggest desire is to have conditions for Jews to do business here. They can [also] show correct paths in business and development to Georgians.
I recommended to Saakashvili in the past – I know he was assisted by Israel – but then he made stupid mistakes, he arrested in very unusual circumstances those Jewish businessmen, and almost ruined those special relations and ties between Israel and Georgia.
My desire and dream is for Israel to become our strategic partner. I am not hiding this fact, but highlighting it. Israel and Jews are interesting for me, and it is good for my country to establish deep ties.
What does strategic partner mean? We need to be such friends that we look at each other as if the other is our homeland [for] any kind of recommendations, advice – strategic or practical, state relations between governments and ministries. But most important is to reestablish the relations between the nations, between the people. People are most important.
During my election period last year I visited almost every region in Georgia.
Every region has nostalgia toward their Jewish communities.
It is not a game. One favor they asked me: bring our Jews back to us.
I kept saying that Israel has finally become strong, and it needs to be strong because it is in a hostile environment.
But we will try our best to bring business. We are restoring all of those synagogues to have the conditions that previously existed.
Jews also played a significant role in developing Georgian culture during our long term relations. Georgians are tolerant in general, but the Jews are ours, part of us, we were one. We had a different attitude and different relations to each other.
Why should Georgia be important to Israel? Georgia may not be economically or politically so interesting for Israel, but if you talk to Georgian Jews, they have retained the Georgian language, they raise their children in the Georgian language, and there is no need for that except that they love Georgia. Who needs Georgian now? They have the same love, the same attitude and see Georgia as their second homeland.
During my regional tours during the elections I saw many tourists from Israel, Jewish tourists visiting Georgia, and I was very happy.
Georgia should not be that attractive to Israel politically or economically, and maybe Israel should not be that attractive for Georgia, especially compared to the United States or other countries.
But the biggest highlight is the experience of living together for a long time, and the love and friendship and warm attitude.
This is not just a phrase.
This is a special relationship.
There is no such a thing as one-sided love, it does not exist, you always need to have a reciprocal part, and it needs to be two-sided… What was formed and molded for centuries needs to play [into the Israel-Georgian relationship]. We miss and love our Jewish community members who went back to Israel… these special ties needs to play into [the relationship].
Once I said we need to bring back our Georgian Jews, and one of my friends, his name is Gabriel, told me not to say that, because Jews needed to live in Israel, their state. He said you can give them dual citizenship, but don’t bring them back. I understand this very well.
I feel very compassionate toward Israel, and want peace for Israel. I want you to achieve much in the shortest time, because you deserve this. The Jews have gone through much persecution and anti-Semitism during their history. It is time for you to establish peace on your land.
We will always welcome you in Georgia, but the most important thing is for you to have peace in Israel. You need to be strong in your state, and you need to have strength. I hope this happens in the near future.
Are you worried about a nuclear Iran? Yes, of course. Nuclear weaponry is dangerous. We are implementing all the UN sanctions. We need to be able to manage – along with the international community – not to have a nuclear Iran.
We need to unite in the fight against terrorism, and in this regard we need be productive and successful in order for Iran not to become a nuclear state.
What would be worse for Georgia: a nuclear Iran, or a Western or Israeli attack on Iran? Neither. Neither is good. A nuclear Iran should not happen, that is not in our interests, of course. Same thing with a Western attack on Iran. Of course, the ideal would be for Iran to be convinced by the West to abandon its nuclear aspirations.
Is that possible? I think so. It is hard, of course, but I think it is a possibility.
I flew in last night on a plane full of Israeli tourists.
Last year there was an attack on the embassy staff here. Can Israelis feel safe in Georgia? I think so, because we have strong police, and are adding more strength to it. Fortunately, there are no terrorist acts on our land. The case you mentioned still needs to be investigated, and it was unsuccessful. But in the future there are no grounds to be afraid of terrorist acts because we have the situation under control.
There were attacks last year against Israeli targets in Thailand, India and Bulgaria.
Thailand and Bulgaria linked the attacks to Hezbollah. Were the attacks here linked to Hezbollah? Since there was no explosion, it is hard for us to state right now who was involved.
We don’t know exactly right now – because it is still under investigation – how serious it was or how much it was tied to Hezbollah or any other terrorist organization.
Did you arrest anyone? No, the investigation is pending; no one has been arrested as of right now. I try to be delicate as possible, and will diplomatically convey our actions when I visit Israel. But here I will say that we are tolerant of all congregations and religious communities, but there will be no extremist attitude tolerated in Georgia. We will not allow it. We are strictly controlling this, and this is how it will be in the future.
There is a big debate in the EU about placing Hezbollah on their terrorist list. Do you think they should? We are still waiting for Europe to decide, and since the Euro-Atlantic aspirations are deep in Georgia, it is our strategy to wait for a European reaction first, and then we will follow.
But do you think they should be on the list? I cannot be concrete about this, and am not going to say this about any particular organization – but any organization having deep ties with terrorist activities should not be allowed, and should be abolished.
Are you going to the Palestinian Authority when you visit on the 24th? No, it is a visit to Israel strictly.
Do you have ties with the PA? No, we never have. In general, I believe there needs to be a final, peaceful resolution in the region. This is needed and deserved by Israel, and Palestine also needs peace. It will be good to have this through negotiations, without any violence and any act of terror.
Why did Georgia vote for the Palestinians at the UN vote on statehood in November? We always support Israel, but because of a certain decision- making process regarding voting we had to decide the way we have decided.
What does that mean? There was disappointment in Israel about Georgia’s vote.
Did that set back ties? We were able to explain.
We are a small country and have enough of our own problems, and were able to explain our actions… I don’t believe there were many questions about the vote.
You mentioned the businessmen arrested here, something that set back the ties. Have these ties recuperated since them? I believe what happened was abnormal. I know numerous businessmen who live in Israel, Jews – and not only in Israel but in France and Russia – and the majority realize that the situation has changed in Georgia. The situation is close to ideal when it comes to doing business in Georgia. I believe it is no less than any other country where business is respected and competitive business is respected. No one will dare to pressure private property owners or businessmen.
On the contrary, every government official has strict orders not to intervene, but to assist private business and assist private property. No one will dare tangle their hands in private property. I believe this attitude is felt throughout the region, and through the world.
How did the recent death of Georgian soldiers in Afghanistan impact on the public opinion here? Is there a call to take the troops out? The last two cases [in May and in June] were very devastating for Georgia. Three soldiers were killed in the first attack, and then after a very short period of time, seven others were killed. Of course there were some demands in the public [to remove the forces], but there is no actual threat of the public calling for a withdrawal. People understand why we are doing this, and our government will do everything to continue fighting terror with the international community.
We will keep our military contingent the way it is right now, and keep on having them after 2014 as well.
When NATO forces start to withdraw we will keep our contingent in Afghanistan, and will continue our fight against terrorism.
Why? Because terrorism has no borders. It has no nationality.
It is a duty for the entire civilized world to do its maximum to prevent terrorism.
We realize this very well. We are the biggest non-NATO member with the largest amount of troops [in Afghanistan]. About 1,600.
No other non-NATO country has such a large force. Even some NATO countries don’t have such a large contingent.
Is this a way for you to get into NATO? This is one part of the equation; it is not one of the main things. The main thing is that together with the international community, we are proudly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with NATO member country forces, and our soldiers are defending world peace on Afghani territory. We are not against Afghanistan, we are assisting Afghanistan as much as we can, and we are trying our very best to have peace there as well. Georgian soldiers are part of the international community defending international peace.
Are you afraid that as a result of involvement in Afghanistan, Georgia will be a target for Islamic extremists? In all my statements I say that Georgia is not against Islam. We are fighting extremists, terrorists; we don’t like terrorists, just like every other civilized nation.
We are not against Islam, we are not against Islamic belief, not against Afghanistan. We are assisting Afghanistan as much as we can in establishing peace.
One concern about you in the West is that you are going to reorient Georgian policy toward Russia. How do you answer that? Our European and Euro- Atlantic vector has not been changed. This is not my choice; it is the choice of the Georgian people. We will not sacrifice this in any case, and not in exchange for anything.
At the same time we need to manage relations with Russia, which is not easy, of course – but we will be successful in this. I have big expectations and great hope that we will be able to manage in time to reestablish the territorial integrity of Georgia, get back the lost territories [South Ossetia and Abkhazia], and manage relations with Russia. But what I stated will not happen in exchange for our strategy, which is Euro-Atlantic integration.