TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — The billionaire prime minister of Georgia should have been pleased: His candidate swept a presidential election that international observers praised on Monday as a step forward for democracy in this U.S.-aligned former Soviet republic.
Instead, Bidzina Ivanishvili denigrated the losing party and the 22 percent of voters who chose its candidate. He also reprimanded his own supporters who had not listened to him and stayed home on election day, saying they had neglected their duties as Georgian citizens.
In the wide scolding, delivered during a nearly two-hour news conference, Ivanishvili left little doubt that he will remain the most influential figure in Georgia even after he hands over the prime minister's job next month to a member of his team. The tone of his remarks suggested he sees himself less as an elected official and more in the role of a wise patriarch or CEO.
"He treats Georgia like a company that he has taken over, built according to his desires, and then transferred the management of to his assistants, while still continuing to control it," said Gia Nodia, a political scientist who heads a research institute in Tbilisi, the capital.
Ivanishvili became prime minister a year ago when his coalition routed the party of his bitter rival, outgoing President Mikhail Saakashvili. The billionaire consolidated his political control in Sunday's presidential election when his chosen candidate, 44-year-old former university rector Giorgi Margvelashvili, won with 62 percent of the vote.
Ivanishvili said he hoped on Saturday to announce his choice for the next prime minister, now the more powerful post in Georgia's new parliamentary system. The nomination would need to be approved by parliament, which his party controls.
Both new Georgian leaders would then be beholden to Ivanishvili. The president-elect, speaking at Monday's news conference, said he would have no reason not to listen to his "authoritative friend." Ivanishvili's vast wealth and generosity give him considerable clout. Nearly a decade ago, when Georgia was close to economic collapse, he stepped in to pay the salaries of government officials and beloved theater actors. Georgians only in recent years learned that he had funded the construction of the new cathedral.
This year, he committed $1 billion to a new investment fund to stimulate the economic development of Georgia. His estimated $5.3 billion fortune is equal to one-third of the economic output of the entire Georgian economy.
Ivanishvili said he was stunned that the presidential candidate from Saakashvili's party, former parliament speaker David Bakradze, received as high as 22 percent of the vote among 23 candidates. "I could not imagine it even in the worst scenario," Ivanishvili said. "And it showed what I was always saying, that we lack political culture."
The billionaire has talked about dedicating himself to the development of civil society in Georgia in the coming years. The election won high praise from international observers. "In a positive and transparent election, the Georgian people have confirmed last year's historic transfer of power," Joao Soares, who led the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer mission, said in a statement. "This clean election following a political cohabitation tells me that Georgia's democracy is maturing."
Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said Monday that the vote "clearly represented the will of the people" and urged "all parties to work together constructively to promote Georgia's political stability and strengthen its civil society to advance its democratic and economic development."
Ivanishvili has maintained the pro-Western course set by Saakashvili during his nearly 10 years in office. With Georgia due to sign an association agreement with the European Union next month, his government has stressed its commitment to European values.
Nodia, the political analyst, said Ivanishvili has demonstrated a peculiar understanding of democracy. "It seems he just doesn't want to accept that the main value of democracy is pluralism," Nodia said. "He thinks the people should be on someone's side, on his side."
During the past year, criminal charges have been filed against dozens of Saakashvili loyalists, including several former ministers. Saakashvili also is expected to be questioned after he leaves office next month.
Also on Monday, a Georgian court convicted a former defense minister, Bacho Akhalaia, and ordered him sent to prison for three years and nine months. Akhalaia was found guilty of using excessive force to suppress a prison uprising in 2006 in which seven inmates were killed and 22 injured. He was head of the prison system at the time. He also served as an interior minister in charge of police under Saakashvili.
The prosecutions have raised concerns in the United States and Europe that Ivanishvili's government is using the justice system to settle political scores. He denies this, and his government has welcomed international monitors to attend the high-profile trials.
Associated Press writer Misha Dzhindzhikhasvili contributed to this report.