October 19, 2011 / 6:15 PM / 7 years ago

Georgia raids bank of opposition tycoon

* Raid comes after Ivanishvili joins political race

* Billionaire denounces move as political pressure

By Margarita Antidze

TBILISI, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Georgia’s central bank launched a probe on Wednesday into a bank owned by billionaire and aspiring opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, and police have seized million of dollars from its coffers on suspicion of money laundering.

Ivanishvili, whose wealth is estimated at $5.5 billion by the United States’ Forbes magazine, announced his political ambitions last week and called on President Mikheil Saakashvili, the pro-western leader of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, to resign.

The central bank said it would investigate the resignations last week of Cartu Bank’s general director, deputy directors and the chairman of its supervisory board.

“The National Bank, as a regulator of the banking sector and a guarantor of financial stability of the country, has taken a decision to assess via detailed inspection the situation in Bank Cartu,” the central bank said on a statement on its website, written in English.

The Interior Ministry said police seized $2 million and 1 million euros ($1.4 million) of Cartu’s money late on Tuesday during a raid on the bank’s armoured delivery truck, “as a part of a money laundering investigation.”

Ivanishvili’s spokesman, Zurab Bigvava, told reporters the investigation had political motives.

“It is all directed against Bidzina Ivanishvili and is linked to his decision to go into politics,” he said.

The reclusive businessman, whose banking-to-retail interests are mainly in Russia, where he is known as “Boris”, has been denounced by Tbilisi as a “Kremlin stooge” and stripped of his Georgian citizenship.

Georgia and Russia fought a five-day war in 2008, and Saakashvili often accuses the country’s scattered opposition figures of having ties with Russia.

The Justice Ministry last week ruled that Ivanishvili’s citizenship had become “automatically invalid” when he acquired a French passport in 2010 — a decision barring him from financing a political party.

He was granted a Georgian passport under a presidential decree signed by Saakashvili in 2004, when he returned to Georgia from Russia, although Georgia does not permit double citizenship.

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