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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Live from Bidzina's

I was 30 minutes late, the last hack to enter Ivanishvili's grounds. I expected to be turned away at the door, but a security guard verified my credentials, presented me with my pass and passed me on to the security check, who passed me on to the next guy, and so on, until I was in a Jetson-like atrium full of journalists.

This was multi-billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili's fifth interview in his life and first ever press conference and it was being broadcast live on state TV. Now, I thought, we would find out just why he entered politics and what his platform might be. I thought of what question I might ask. I narrowed it down between the following:

"Every leader since Gamsakhurdia has been the messiah who will rescue the country and turn it into the Switzerland of the Caucasus, until they lose favor with the populace and get disposed (2/3). How are you different?"

"May I come up and use your swimming pool some day?"

I would not even come close to asking either question.

Ivanishvili and his spokesperson, Irakli Tripolski, took their seats at what was probably designed to be a dance floor. It was a peculiar match - the billionaire - neat, trim and confident, and the valet - ruffled, brow-burrowed and sweating. The hum in the room prior to their appearance had been the anxious but restrained vibe encountered before all big pressers. Then it all went to hell. Ivanishvili's freshly constructed team was too green to host 200 journalists, most of whom had been sent not to get answers but to disrupt the entire event.

Here's the situation. You have the richest guy in the country with absolutely no political experience saying he is going to lead Georgia, despite the fact he is no longer a citizen. Instead of trying to trip him up on his platform - or lack of one - or any number of issues, journalists asked caustic questions, mostly related to his perceived Russian connections. Ivanishvili was well-prepared for these and responded calmly and directly. "Please stop cheating each other, smile and tell the truth. You need to ask questions that come from you, not what somebody else is telling you to ask," he said.

One newspaper reporter claims she overheard a TV journalist being instructed to ask particularly pointed questions through her earphone.

It all broke down into a scrum for the microphone, journalists shouted over each other's questions and one Rustavi 2 journalist snatched the mic out of the Rueters correspondent's hand, shouting, "you're not allowed to ask questions, you had your private interview with him!" The same journalist continued to interrupt the proceedings after she had taken her turn. Later, Rustavi 2 news lead with the story of Ivanishvili's chaotic press conference, where their journalist was not even given an opportunity to ask a question.

Tripolski was a caricature of himself, looking at his watch and then somewhere past the milieu at the gods in charge of this mess, begging them to end it all. Ivanishivili assured him it was OK and smiled at the melee of two-bit hacks, as if thinking, "My God, is this the best you can do?"

Even though the 40 minute conference rolled for another 40 minutes, there wasn't much time to get down to issues, as some people like the ludicrous Real TV "reporter" asked him why he hated sparrows. “Is it because your penguin ate one and died?” she asked.

Much of what he said amounted to Misha bashing: Saakashvili won nothing in the WTO agreement, started the war with Russia and failed to create the democratic institutions necessary to join NATO. Ivanishvili added that he intends to impeach the president when he comes to power.

We do know that he doesn't intend to change anything regarding Georgia's contribution to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan and that he believes ethnic, religious and sexual minorities are equal members of society. “My stance towards them will be the same as to other members of society," which is about the boldest and most progressive statement any Georgian politician has ever made. It's like a US politician telling Bible-belters he's a pro-choice Muslim and pro gay marriage.

This round of the “Who Will Save Georgia Game” goes to Ivanishvili, for showing he’s cool, calm and collected when under siege by a bunch of media lackeys. Like one observer put it, “This was only his fifth interview in his life and it was to two-hundred people. I would have advised him not to do this but he showed that he is in total control of the situation.”

My Deutsche Welle story is HERE.