The billionaire trackers at Forbes Magazine may need to subtract some $91.03 million from Bidzina Ivanishvili’s estimated $6.4 billion fortune, after a court in Tbilisi whacked the anti-government crusading tycoon with two hefty fines.
On June 11, Ivanishvili, busy preparing for a battle royale with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government in October's parliamentary election, was found guilty of bribing voters. The TV antennas and bus rides state auditors claim the group distributed for free to voters will cost Ivanishvili 126.22 million lari (roughly $77.30 million) and 22.42 million lari (roughly $13.73 million), respectively, unless his lawyers succeed in their plans to appeal the verdict.
The Tbilisi City Court ruled that Ivanishvili underwrote the distribution of satellite dishes to thousands of Georgian households via Global TV, a cable network that is majority-owned by his brother, Alexander. Global TV is the only Georgian cable network that carries a television channel recently launched by Ivanishvili.
The court also found that two of the tycoon's companies provided cheap transportation to members of the Georgian Dream. Both cases, unearthed by the State Audit Service, charged with enforcement of campaign-finance regulations, amount to illegal donations, the court ruled.
As has happened before when the Georgian Dream got called on the campaign-finance carpet, Saakashvili's United National Movement also faces some attention from the auditors. Kakha Baratashvili, the deputy chairperson of the city council of Rustavi, a rusting town about 30 minutes from Tbilisi, faces a fine of 7,920 lari ($4,850) for allegedly handing out wine and sheep at Easter, news outlets reported.
The impending threat of hefty fines, though, did not discourage Ivanishvili from making lavish campaign promises on Sunday. At a mass rally in Kutaisi, the new seat for Georgia's parliament, the billionaire promised a billion-lari (about $612.37 million) start-up fund for Georgian agriculture. With that and an earlier pledge of no-Georgian-left-behind state healthcare insurance, Ivanishvili has been getting down to the brass tacks of his platform.
Coming from the richest Georgian (technically, a French citizen), such promises sound plausible for many Georgians. Or at least rival the chicken-in-every-pot promises from the Saakashvili administration.
In an interview with the pro-government weekly Tabula, a leading member of his Georgian Dream coalition, Tina Khidasheli*, co-head of the opposition Republican Party, indicated that the money for Ivanishvili's economic and healthcare programs will appear after making fundamental changes to national spending priorities; ergo, a switch from “useless” construction projects to social programs.
Before (and if) that happens, Ivanishvili might have to be more parsimonious. He still has billions of dollars to play around with, but that might change further if Georgia's national audit agency persists in its scrutiny of his campaign moves.
*Tina Khidasheli formerly served as board chairperson of the Open Society Georgia Foundation. EurasiaNet.org operates under the separate auspices of the Open Society Institute.