TBILISI (Reuters) - Until a year ago, few people in Georgia knew what billionaire businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili looked like.
He was best known in the former Soviet republic as a free-spending philanthropist with a spectacular home overlooking Tbilisi, and for keeping penguins, kangaroos and lemurs at a private zoo at another mansion outside the capital.
But a year after entering politics, the once reclusive tycoon is on the verge of becoming prime minister and under pressure to prove wrong rivals who say he is a Russian stooge.
“We’ll do our best to sort out relations with Russia,” Ivanishvili said on Tuesday after partial results put his Georgian Dream on course to win a parliamentary election. But he added: “Our main aspiration is Europe and our security is NATO”.
Ivanishvili, 56, is on a steep learning curve before taking on a role that will become more powerful under constitutional changes next year to water down the powers of the presidency.
He has little experience of politics, none of government and faces a potentially difficult period of cohabitation with his rival Mikheil Saakashvili, who is due to remain president until next year and sees “deep differences” between their parties.
Ivanishvili also acknowledges that his six-party coalition could quickly break up into three factions in parliament.
The diverse parties in Georgian Dream - named after a song by Ivanishvili’s rapper son Bear - have little in common apart from loyalty to the tycoon and opposition to Saakashvili.
Georgia’s richest man began life in a poor hilltop village where he used to enjoy playing football with his friends.
He made his fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine at $6.4 billion, mainly in Russia, with businesses ranging from banking to agricultural products, via metals and mining, after he started out selling computers. He has now sold his assets in Russia.
His rapid success is perhaps surprising for a man who long avoided publicity and photographers. When he bought Pablo Picasso’s “Dora Mara au Chat” for $95.2 million in 2006, he did so anonymously, adding it to an art collection that includes works by Damien Hirst and Roy Lichtenstein.
All that changed last October when he announced he was entering politics, abandoning his privacy for what he says is a love of his homeland and a battle to oust a government he accuses of allowing the gap between rich and poor to widen.
He has distributed some of his money across the country of 4.5 million people with philanthropic gestures, particularly in and around his home village of Choral.
Residents say he has paved roads, built villagers new homes with water, electricity and gas, provided each household with 200 lair ($120) a month and given newlyweds $3,000.
He has also sponsored renovation of almost all theatres in the capital and has been paying pensions to many well-known Georgian artists.
But critics have accused him of trying to win votes with his generosity, a charge he denies. He has also rejected criticism that he has used his stakes in opposition television channels to his political advantage.
Saakashvili has hinted he believes Ivanishvili is doing the bidding of Russian President Vladimir Putin, his bitter foe since the two countries fought a five-day war in 2008. Saakashvili said during the election campaign: “Those who thought they could carry out Putin’s orders in our country will be very disappointed.”
Ivanishvili says Saakashvili played the “Russian card” to draw attention away from Georgia’s problems, and he has responded by selling his assets in Russia.
Ivanishvili was stripped of Georgian citizenship last year because he held a French passport, violating a law against having multiple nationality, but parliament passed a law allowing him to run in the election as a European Union citizen.
He decided not to do so but expects to have his Georgian citizenship reinstated soon. The prime minister does not have to stand in the election but is approved by parliament.
He now needs to name a new government and says none of old ministers would retain their jobs, although supporters of Saakashvili would not be persecuted.
He picked up votes by challenging corruption and vowing to fight poverty, and promised to boost the economy by reducing bureaucratic controls, ending monopolies and taking steps to woo foreign investors.
He says he will improve health care and agriculture, make the justice system more independent and ensure the tax and customs departments are more transparent.
“I’ll do whatever I can to attract foreign investors,” Ivanishvili said.
Editing by Giles Elgood