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Eccentric billionaire now poised to become Georgia's next president (+video)

Billionarie Bidzina Ivanishvili, who won a surprise victory in Georgia's parliamentary elections, says that he hopes to restore ties with Russia while continuing to move his country toward EU and NATO membership. 

By Maria DanilovaAssociated Press / October 2, 2012

Georgia's opposition leader, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, speaks to the media during a press conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, Tuesday.

Efrem Lukatsky/AP

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He collects rare animals, buys priceless art and professes to be a psychoanalyst. Bidzina Ivanishvili, a onetime barefoot village boy turned eccentric billionaire philanthropist, is poised to become the new leader of Georgia, a strategic South Caucasus country that lives in the shadows of giant neighbor Russia.

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Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili conceded defeat Tuesday in parliamentary polls that handed a shock victory to an opposition coalition led by billionaire tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili.

President Mikhail Saakashvili, a staunch ally of the West, on Tuesday acknowledged defeat in parliamentary elections and called on Ivanishvili to form the new government. That puts the tycoon on track to be prime minister, which will be Georgia's most powerful job under legislative changes next year.

After making his fortune in tumultuous post-Soviet Russia, Ivanishvili, 56, returned to Georgia shortly before the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution catapulted Saakashvili to power. For years he quietly financed Saakashvili's reforms, buying new shoes for Georgian soldiers, equipping the police force with cars and helping to raise the salaries of lawmakers and ministry bureaucrats so that they wouldn't take bribes.

But his friendship with Saakashivli soured after the U.S.-educated president cracked down on dissent, imposed controls over the media and led his nation into a disastrous 2008 war with Russia.

Ivanishvili says he was "fooled" by Saakashvili and shocked Tbilisi last year by announcing he would challenge his former ally's 8-year grip on power. The president responded by casting Ivanishvili as a Russian stooge and referring to his Georgian Dream coalition as the "forces of darkness."

The billionaire laughs off the charges, noting his past bankrolling a president who has thrived on being the Kremlin's arch-enemy.

"I was the only free person who can do something with my brains, my money and my name," Ivanishvili told the AP in an interview this summer at his Black Sea residence.

Ivanishvili promises to continue moving Georgia toward membership in the European Union and NATO. At the same time, he promises to fix economic ties with Russia, getting Moscow to lift its ban on Georgian wine and mineral water.

Ivanishvili admits that he faces a tough challenge mending relations with Russia while moving closer to the West.

"Yes, it's hard. Yes, perhaps we will have to spend a lot of time on this," Ivanishvili told the AP. "We need both. We need to strive for that."

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