Former Georgian leader’s court victory the newest chapter in a colourful career
Oligarchs now facing sanctions and the discomfort of seeing their luxurious lifestyles thrown into the spotlight may be disconcerted to recall that one of their alleged number, just four months ago in a Bermuda Court, vividly described his rise to dizzying wealth on the back of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Bidzina Ivanishvili, who today won a $500 million judgment against Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse, is a former leader of the Caucasus nation of Georgia and founder of the ruling party Georgian Dream.
The party began in 2012, just four years after Russian president Vladimir Putin invaded the country.
Mr Ivanishvili ran successfully in that year’s election on a platform that friendlier to Russia than his opponent, but remained Prime Minister for just one year, and then party chairman from 2018 until 2021.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last month, the ruling party has had to tread a careful line between support for its fellow former Soviet republic and attempting not to aggravate its giant neighbour. This has not stopped it from applying to join the European Union, however.
Today, the billionaire lives in a futuristic $50-million home The New York Times described as a ‘glassle’ that includes a shark tank, helipad and part of his $1 billion collection of modern art. The edifice sits on the hills above the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.
Mr Ivanishvili made his multibillion-dollar fortune in the former Soviet Union focusing on the technology and banking sectors before returning to Georgia and entering politics.
A student in Moscow when the 1991-92 collapse occurred, he described that time as “… the wildest capitalism in Russia and Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union”, during his court appearance.
Mr Ivanishvili testified he began his business empire by importing small-scale electronics and mobile phones, getting started with money borrowed from relatives and friends.
“We extended it in the classic mould. We managed to make it grow,” he said.
He was determined to remedy the lack of banking services he found.
He said: “It showed me an opportunity and I decided to use it. We actually managed to earn $1 million, and with that we bought the bank.”
From there, he said, he continued to take advantage of business opportunities, ultimately building a multibillion-dollar empire comprising of banking, manufacturing, mining, technology interests and more.
But he sold much of his Russian holdings and placed a significant portion of the proceeds with Credit Suisse when he returned to Georgia and entered politics.
It was a call for a significant portion of his wealth, made as a result of futures contracts made for Credit Suisse life insurance policies, that led him to sue the banking giant’s Bermuda-based insurance arm for $400 million, in a case heard by Chief Justice Narinder Hargun during November and December.
Mr Ivanishvili said he discovered huge losses when a review of his unit-linked life insurance policy account statements disclosed a call for hundreds of millions of dollars.
The policies are tax-saving, financial products that allow for both insurance and investment. The holder of the policy, through a power of attorney for the insurer, can also withdraw funds.
The $400 million demand was made to cover the cost of shares in a drug development company, Raptor Pharmaceutical Corp, when trials for a new drug failed. The value of the stock plunged and the demand for payment was made.
It was revealed during testimony that Mr Ivanishvili’s Credit Suisse relationship manager, Patrice Lescaudron, was caught and disciplined, having engaged in fraudulent dealings, particularly in respect to Raptor Pharmaceutical.
Credit Suisse, however, did not take definitive action to put a halt to Lescaudron’s unsanctioned activities until Mr Ivanishvili complained.
He said Lescaudron should have been stopped.
The revelations during the trial included that at least some share purchases generated kickbacks for Lescaudron, who used the Bermuda subsidiary to facilitate unauthorised acquisitions for the billionaire client’s account.
A table, drawn up by investigators into Lescaudron’s fraudulent activities, indicated about 27 million Swiss francs had been paid in those kickbacks to the rogue banker between 2010 until at least 2013.
It was also revealed that it was possible Lescaudron did not give the direct orders to buy at least a portion of the shares.
However, Mr Ivanishvili also gave evidence that he had paid Lescauldron personal bonuses that amounted to more than $1 million.
The fraudster was convicted of financial crimes and sentenced to prison. He was released early because of poor health, but soon afterwards, in 2020, died by suicide.
The Credit Suisse case took five weeks to be heard and was conducted via video conferencing with witnesses testifying from nations as far afield as Georgia, Switzerland and Canada, while the legal teams were based in London with Mr Hargun hearing the case in Bermuda.