Monday, February 6, 2012

Life with Bidzina Ivanishvili, an eye opening and near death experience in Georgia

Life with Bidzina Ivanishvili, - an eye opening and near death experience in Georgia
By Patrick Downey
I returned to Tbilisi in the closing days of August 2008, having escaped for Yerevan several days into the fighting in South Ossetia. I was about to begin my second fall living at the Ivanishvilis’ sprawling Black Sea residence in Ureki, despite the small unit of Russian soldiers dug in on the opposite bank of a nearby river (the name of which I can't recall) on the approach to Poti. Although somewhat hesitant, I did look forward to my return - even though I was in many respects returning to a mad house.
Uta Ivanishvili, who was about to turn sixteen, was preparing for his CNED (Centre national d'enseignement à distance) exams, and we all knew that we had our work cut out: “we” being his core teachers, yours truly and four Frenchmen tasked with educating the three eldest Ivanishvili children: Uta, Bera and Gvantsa. The summer before, the children's science teacher had left under bizarre, unexplained circumstances, due to several incidents involving Uta, which we had all attributed to the Ivanishvili childrens’ relative isolation and bizarre, overly-pampered, overly-protected upbringing.  As far as my French colleagues were concerned, we were a tightly-knit group of strangers in a strange land.  One of them - whom I'll call Didier, a former French Air Force member who once served a tour working as an assistant for the Air Force attaché at a French embassy abroad - once said "This is a circus, and we are all stars in it."
Aside from Uta's behavior and inability to focus on any given task for more than a few minutes, a condition they call attention deficient disorder, ADA, those first few weeks went well. My English lessons with Bera and Gvantsa were going smoothly, and I spent the evenings playing soccer in the compound with Bera and a host of Ivanishvili's bodyguards, kitchen staff and children of friends of the family. When my schooling duties, soccer duties, flying visits in the evening to Ivanishvili's nearby amusement park (sirens blazing as we sped down the two lane highway in a convoy of black Ford Excursions) and evening strolls along the embankment in Kobuleti were done, my colleagues and I had the free use of a driver and a shiny, new Toyota Landcruiser on the weekends. And an armed chauffeurs to boot!
All things considered, those were good times, but in the third week of September everything started to slowly fall apart: and the effects of this nearly destroyed me.  One never knew what to expect working for Bidzina Ivanishvili, or "The Chief", as his employees called him. In the near year-and-a-half in which I worked for "The Family", not once did I ever hear the name Ivanishvili uttered by anyone. It seemed to be some kind of unwritten rule not to mention this name. Even in my employment contract (which included a fifty year non-disclosure clause) there was no mention of the name Ivanishvili - even though the address of the company which technically employed me, Finservice XXI Ltd., shared an address with Cartu Bank's headquarters in Vake. 
As far as my French colleagues and I were concerned, "The Chief" was something of an enigma to say the least, and we never did know what to expect from day to day, as it was unclear who was the decision-maker in the family: Bidzina or his wife, Eka, both of whom I had begun teaching English to that September, in addition to teaching the children.  Had I known what I was getting myself into, I never would have accepted the Chief's job offer - or agreed to have even met the man in the first place.
With regard to the decisions concerning the Ivanishvili's children's education, the ones his parents made never seemed to make sense. Throw in all the politics, infighting and back-stabbing going on amongst the children's Georgian teachers, and with Rosa, the Kurdish chief nanny and protector, it made for an interesting work environment, to say the least.
In short, there was little order, a constant air of mystery, and a degree of distrust. The children's schedules could change on a whim: wild rumors and gossip would spread amongst the employees, and Ivanishivili, although polite and friendly to a fault, always seemed to be floating within his own time in space, surrounded by an air of mystique and intrigue. Yet our relationship was a good one, and I felt it was based on mutual respect - until the “unimaginable” happened.
Uta's behavior had got worse. He was feeling the stress of his upcoming examinations, and I believe that his isolation was starting to seriously affect his well-being. That summer, for instance, he had lashed out at me uncontrollably with a metal ruler during one of our lessons at the Ivanishvilis’ mountain residence/compound in Chorvila. His hurling of personal insults at me, deceased members of my family and my fiancée, which I attributed to his insecurity and poor relations with his parents, had also begun to spiral out of control.
Moreover, I also believe that the special vegetarian diet which the Ivanishvilis had embarked on (several of us were worried about Eka Ivanishvili's appearance) was a factor, as the children were eating less meat - Uta once told me that his father intended to live to the ripe old age of one hundred and twenty. By the summer of 2007 two of Ivanishvili's chefs - both Frenchmen – had also become very concerned about this strange diet.  One of these chefs also suddenly lost his job in the autumn of 2008, again under very strange circumstances, as did one of the nannies for the Ivanishvili's youngest child, Tsotney - the Ivanisvhili children are all multi-lingual, and can switch between Georgian, Russian, French or English as one could turn a light switch on and off. 
Prior to that summer the Ivanishvilis had not been vegetarians, and I can't remember them following a strict Orthodox diet either. In fact I only ever saw one tiny icon in their home in Chorvila: one which one of their Russian teachers had placed in a bookcase in a room set aside for Gvantsa's lessons. The Ivanishvilis never struck me as being particularly religious, let alone Orthodox Christians, and I know that Bidzina despised Ilia II, the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, as Uta alluded to this on one occasion during our one-on-one lessons. I was also particularly struck by Uta's silence after the death of Badri Patarkatsishvili, who he had seemed to develop some kind of fascination with back in the winter of 07'/08'. He had put a screen saver on his computer featuring photos of Patarkatsishvili, whom he occasionally mocked.
All that aside, things were going relatively well, and I looked forward to my contract being renewed (it was due to expire on October First), as Bidzina had made it clear this would be the case. I was also looking forward to spending another year or two living in Tbilisi, where I had managed to carve out a good life for myself, which included a comfortable flat in the hills of Sololaki and plans to marry by Georgian girlfriend, who had recently become pregnant.
But by the last week of September 2008 Uta's behavior had become worse than ever, and my stress levels were going through the roof. Unexpectedly, Uta then seemed to feel what I perceived to be a sense of regret over his behavior. I was thus relieved to receive a telephone call from Bera on the evening of 28th September, inviting me to an "end of summer" celebration...
I HAD COME TO EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED LIVING WITH AND WORKING FOR THE IVANISHVILIS...but being drugged was something I never would have expected in a million years. Not to mention being told blatant lies, and having one of the world's richest men, who I considered to be a friend, suddenly turn his back on me. Maybe this was out of fear of a confrontation, but probably more was involved, perhaps my Foreign Service background – I had served at the US Embassy in Moscow, and had knowledge of the people Ivanishvili would come to associate with, and the networks of patronage within the political elites of Georgia and Russia.

Settled in my room in the small apartment building (the "Teachers Home") across the compound in the late hours of September 28, I was startled when Bera called. He told me that Uta had drugged me, as a joke, and that he was sorry - Uta later apologized over the phone to me - and that he, and Ivanishvili's Assistant Head of Security, would come by shortly to take me to the doctor, who also lived in the compound: a cardiologist named Zviad Matoshvili.

It was then that I learned from Dr. Matoshvili that I had been given a "twentyfold overdose" of a powerful, prescription-strength laxative (I believe the Ivanishvilis used laxatives as part of their diet/health regime) as a prank, during our "end of summer" celebration, but that Uta and the boys had thought better of it afterward and decided to call the doctor - Matoshvili told me that my condition could have been "very serious" had I not been treated.

To say the least, that night was an uncomfortable one, and early that morning I telephoned one of the Georgian teachers to inform Bidzina that I would not be coming into work that day as I was ill. Soon afterwards I received a telephone call from Bidzina's representative across the country in Tbilisi, Irakli Gharibashvili of Cartu Bank, who informed me that my services were no longer required, due to scheduling difficulties concerning the children's lessons, and he would send a driver from Tbilisi for me. I asked him to delay the driver for a couple of days, which he did, for I was unfit to travel due to my condition. Irakli told me that these measures were only temporary, and that I would remain "a priority" to "The Family".  Irakli incidentally was the first of Ivanishvili's employees to threaten me several months later, after I had attempted to contact Bidzina, after I had learned that there was no such thing as democracy in Georgia, and that no-one had any legal rights in Georgia.  At least not those who attempted to sue Bidzina Ivanishvili in a Georgian court of law.

By midday of September 29 my friends and colleagues (the French) were aware of my situation. Moreover, they had gotten wind that Irakli had lied to me regarding the reason for my dismissal/non-renewal of my employment contract - and they could not understand for the life of them what was going on. Dider (the former French Air Force attaché assistant) told me that he had confronted Bidzina about it, but Bidzina had made his decision.

Furthermore, I called Bera later that afternoon and requested a meeting with Bidzina. Bera put me on hold, and I could hear him speaking to Bidzina in the background. Bera told me that his father was busy and could not meet with me - he was not more than one hundred and fifty yards away from me at the time.

I was hospitalized in Tbilisi several days later, and treated on two consecutive days, as a result of the drugging and what I would describe as a mild case of shock.  During the drive across country, through the mountains of Imureti and back toward Tbilisi, I became become convinced that I was going to be dragged out of the Landcruiser and shot by one of Ivanishvili's men.  I later attributed this, in part, to the high fever that I had been running, which broke early the next morning.

I never saw anyone from "The Family" again, although I did speak with Bera (who I loved as a son) on the telephone several times prior to leaving Tbilisi (and Georgia) for good that December - officials at the US Embassy had advised me to leave Georgia for my own safety, and not take any legal action against Bidzina until after I had left the country. Only later would I understand their motivation, and it had nothing to do with looking after my best interests, even though I was a natural-born United States citizen and a veteran.

Having said that, despite the warnings of the officials at the Embassy, I did contact an attorney in Tbilisi (Tea Giorgadze) in order to explore whatever legal options might have been available to me, and this had resulted in a meeting with Ms. Giorgadze's then-fiance - a member of the Georgian judiciary who was imprisoned the very day after we had met and had a chat outside the Marriott on Rustaveli Avenue.  It was Mr. Giorgadze, incidentally, who had put me in touch with an investigative journalist not long before I left Georgia for good, back in December 2008, who interviewed me on camera - his cameraman even shot video footage of me walking down Rustaveli Avenue with the snow falling around.  But the piece was never aired.

Looking back, I still do not know why I was treated the way I was, but I think it had something to do with the knowledge I had acquired during my time with the Ivanishvilis, and especially since I had begun to teach Bidzina and Eka: Bidzina had told me about the differences he had had with Russia's current President, Vladimir Putin several years prior to the events of 2008 - Ivanishvili had told me that he could "tell by his eyes" that Putin "didn't trust him", and that he "wanted me - Ivanishvili- and his family out of Russia".

Then again, it might also have had something to do with me knowing about Bidzina's low opinion of Ilia II.  Or it might have had something to do with me picking up on him once offering me a very strange handshake in front of some Georgians he was having lunch with one afternoon in Ureki. It might have had something to do with the death of Badri Patarkatsishvili. It might have had something to do with all the gossip and distrust flying around the compound. It might have been purely due to the problems I and the other teachers had experienced with his eldest son. I suppose I will never know.

All I know for certain is that Mr. Ivanishvili does not trust people, that he is a dishonorable man (Uta told me how Bidzina's own father had deserted from the Soviet Army during WWII, and how he hated Russians) and that I, and every single one of my former French colleagues, did not trust Ivanshvili. The nanny put it best when she said: "They are not a good family." If you don't believe me, check out a couple of Bera's earlier music videos.  Any man who would let his teenaged son be taken advantage of by a bunch of greedy, American music industry people has no business leading a nation.  It makes for bad business.

Back in the United States I did everything I could to obtain justice, and get the word out about what was going on in Georgia, but no-one wanted to know - I even went as far as meeting an F.B.I. agent in New Port Richey, Florida, in early 2009. I contacted the Department of Justice's Criminal Division on several occasions, after receiving the threats from Gharibashvili, but to no avail.

However, it was the knowledge that Andy Garcia would be playing Mikheil Saakashvili in the upcoming Hollywood movie 'Georgia' (as it was then entitled), which really pushed me over the edge. That and the fact that I knew how the United States Government operated from my days with the Foreign Service in Moscow.  The very thought of my own government and Hollywood deceiving my fellow Americans in such a manner, while openly funding Ivanishvili (as I found out later) during the greatest recession since the Great Depression, filled me with rage, and a desire not so much to get payback, but to inform people exactly what was going on in the Republic of Georgia. 

This was the yearning in my soul. Little did I know that I would end up being psychologically tortured in a Dublin prison for attempting to seek political refugee status!  However, we live, learn and life goes on. Back home I read an article online about U.S. serviceman André Shepherd, who had claimed political asylum in Germany and received both protection and a great deal of media attention and notoriety. Given the threats I had received from Gharibashvili, and some of the things which I had learned in my two-plus years living in Georgia, I was certain that I would receive some form of protection in my ancestral home of Ireland, where I had graduated from university, and that my story, were it to be told, would in turn shed light on the fact that the movie 'Georgia' was part of the nightmare currently unfolding in the Caucasus. Yet this was not meant to be.

I had a funny feeling at the time that this matter is time-critical. Now I am sure, putting together all the connections with Saakashvili, Sam Patten the 4-hire gun spin doctor and the nexus with the US State Department, that my dismissal was actually part of a game of bait and switch designed to fix the political future of Georgia – its transition to the next US choice of leader after Saakashvili.
Yes, I had been in the Foreign Service, and maybe this is the crucial factor. I left it because the people in it gave me the heebie-jeebies. That and the fact that serving at an American embassy in a place the size of Moscow can be a little like being back in an American high school, where everyone knows his/her own place.  I had downplayed this in Georgia, feeling it would not lend me credibility after the 2008 war. I was pretty damned naive...but I've never been stupid. I have only needed time, and the insight of others, to start connecting the dots. It is not what I know which is threatening; it is what I do not know but was in a position to learn. One thing I did learn is that democracy is simply an illusion in Georgia, just as it is here in the U.S.
I don't know what others who know about Russia and Georgia think, but I've always found that Russian males are, by and large, honorable - they stick to their word. Georgians however seem to have gone pretty much out of their way to kill civilians in Tskinvali, South Ossetia, and they're also pretty good at stabbing people in the back. That’s the nature of the political leadership there, especially in the post-Shevardnadze period, which has nothing to do with the ordinary honorable Georgian man!
I can now understand why Ivanishvili would have rubbed people up the wrong way in Moscow - it’s not his money or politics, but the fact that he could not be trusted by the people making the decisions. Having applied for political asylum in a foreign country I can now see how dangerous I was also seen to be at the time, without even knowing it, but given all I have learned, I wouldn't change any of it for the world.  I only wish that someone in the media would listen to me, or at least answer one of the dozens of letters and e-mails which I had sent across to the USA.  But what's a measly $44 million kick-back to a foreign billionaire in country most Americans have never even heard of, in the wake of the 2008 recession?

Perhaps we do really get the governments we deserve?  Both Georgians and Americans!  I wish this wasn't the case.  I wish people knew more.  I wish they would wake up.  For me personally, it took the help of a couple of journalists (one an American, the other an Australian, both of whom covered the 2008 War in South Ossetia) to connect a few dots for me - more than a few, actually.  Perhaps my story would connect a few dots for others?  I'd enjoy that.  I'd even go as far as saying that I'd enjoy it more than a million dollar pay-off.  At any rate, it sure beats a bullet in the back of one's head.

-- - The professional email service

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