SHEKVETILI, Georgia. Over the past five years, people in Georgia have witnessed a surreal spectacle: gigantic, even centennial trees floating vertically in the Black Sea.
Impressive magnolias, tulip trees and other magnificent views skimmed the surface of the water, their mighty branches spread wide in a procession that looked both poetic and insane.
The trees, mounted on barges pushed by tugboats, were headed for transplanting in a park built by eccentric billionaire and former prime minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, a man many Georgians believe still wields considerable political power despite being retired to focus. for charity.
In total, more than 200 trees arrived in the park, dug out of the ground in the impoverished villages and dense forests of Georgia, a small people in the Caucasus. Mr. Ivanishvili personally checked most of the options.
About half was transported to the park on barges, while the other half was transported by trucks. River beds were widened and trains had to stop to give way, which the Georgians seized on as proof of his ability to move officials with the same impunity as trees.
Opened to the public in the summer of 2020, Mr. Ivanishvili’s park is a rare public display of his opaque yet overwhelming presence in Georgia.
He has no official role in government, but his critics say Ivanishvili, 65, still wields enormous influence behind the scenes.
“Power is concentrated in the hands of one person, and of course that is Bidzina,” said former ally Giorgi Gakharia, who stepped down as prime minister in February, saying the billionaire’s control had become too suffocating.
Shekvetili Dendrological Park on Georgia’s Black Sea coast reflects Mr. Ivanishvili’s extravagant tastes, with its winding layout – around a pond filled with pink flamingos, pelicans and other exotic birds – personally designed by him, according to Paata Sulaberidze. project manager.
A mesh fence separates the public park from Mr. Ivanishvili’s estate.
The park is free to enter and cost him tens of millions of dollars to build, Mr. Ivanishvili said in a rare interview with a business magazine in Georgia.
But signs declaring this property private are everywhere. CCTV cameras are installed everywhere, and there are motion sensors in front of each tree. Look, but don’t you dare touch. And this message also applies to the lawn. Guards with loudspeakers quickly scold dissenters.
However, many visitors say they enjoy the park very much.
“Perhaps this is wrong, but if these trees are happy here, then why not?” – said Nyusya Goman, 19 years old, manicurist. “Of course, he did it primarily for himself,” she said, referring to Mr. Ivanishvili. “It is said that he comes in the morning to be filled with the energy emanating from the trees.”
There are many theories about why Mr. Ivanishvili is so passionate about trees. Some Georgians speculate that he is a druid who worships them.
Salome Jashi, a Georgian director, sees more than a love of nature in Mr. Ivanishvili’s obsession.
“For me, the floating tree was a symbol of strength, of desire, of wanting something at any cost,” said Ms Jashi, who made a documentary about the park project.
Mr. Sulaberidze, project manager, dismisses such suggestions. His boss, he says, “just loves trees.”
Many Georgians say they admired Mr. Ivanishvili for free access to his park, which has been visited by more than 1.5 million people to date, and for his philanthropic work, including scholarships for Georgian artists and poets.
“People don’t understand that he helped so many people in Georgia,” said Rostom Bolkvadze, an entrepreneur from Batumi, a nearby resort town, who visited the park.
However, Mr. Ivanishvili’s political opponents liken him to a feudal lord who sprinkles people with small drops of wealth to buy their favor.
And they insist that his resignation is a sham. “He is nowhere to be seen, but the truth is that he is present everywhere,” said Armaz Akhvlediani, a member of the Georgian parliament.
Mr. Ivanishvili made his fortune in Russia, where he built a steel and banking empire during a chaotic post-Soviet transition. His fortune is currently estimated at $6 billion, which is more than Georgia’s 2021 state budget.
Many Georgians suggest that the Kremlin would never have allowed such wealth to leave the country if it had not been confident that the money would be used to buy influence in Georgia, a strategically important country that is fighting to maintain its independence against the great power ambitions of neighboring Turkey. and Russia.
One of Mr. Ivanishvili’s fiercest critics is former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. After spending years abroad, Mr. Saakashvili made a dramatic and unexpected return to the country in September and is currently being held on malpractice charges and other charges he denies.
Mr. Saakashvili, who tried to distance Georgia from its Soviet past during his presidency, calls himself a “prisoner of Putin” and calls Mr. Ivanishvili a Kremlin lackey.
But Giorgi Khelashvili, a member of parliament for Mr. Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party, says the resignation was sincere.
“His idea was to get out of the system, and he wanted to leave the system to the government to take care of that, and he would just step aside,” Mr. Khelashvili said.
Mr. Ivanishvili’s representatives turned down numerous interview requests for this article.
If his role is unclear now, Mr. Ivanishvili once played a very open and prominent role in Georgia’s emotionally charged political scene, where voters scrutinize the candidate’s attitude toward Russia.
As leader of a coalition of political parties, he won the 2012 parliamentary elections and served as prime minister from October 2012 to November 2013, during which time he pursued Georgia’s aspirations to join NATO and Europe, but also tried to be pragmatic with Moscow.
His coalition waged a campaign against Mr. Saakashvili, then president, whose party’s defeat forced him to resign and leave the country soon after.
As the bloody protests in Kazakhstan showed this month, the transfer of power in many former Soviet republics has often been chaotic and violent. Supporters of Mr. Ivanishvili point to his decision to voluntarily step down as prime minister after a year as evidence that he is unlikely to be power-hungry.
At the moment, Mr. Ivanishvili is most interested in his eccentric hobbies, which sometimes manifested during his tenure as prime minister.
Mr. Akhvlediani, an MP who worked closely with Mr. Ivanishvili as chairman of his political party in 2013 but has since quarreled, recalls that during an official foreign visit to Strasbourg, Mr. Ivanishvili was most interested in the city zoo where he bought stork eggs to bring home.
While a passion for trees may seem harmless, this is not necessarily the case when a powerful billionaire has been hooked.
When Toby Kearse, a professor of evolutionary biology at Vrie University in Amsterdam, learned of Mr. Ivanishvili’s intention to uproot ancient trees, she said she felt physical pain.
“For hundreds of years, these ancient trees have cultivated their unique underground ecosystems, including the vast networks of fungi that have supported the tree ever since it was a tiny seedling,” said Dr. Kearse, who studies how trees are connected. “When a tree is uprooted, this life-support system rips out of the soil, leaving behind a barren wasteland.”
Valentina Slobodenyuk was left with a view of the sea, which was blocked by giant sequoias and ginkgo biloba, which Mr. Ivanishvili took for his park.
Trees have played an important role in her life, she said, and the sequoia served as a welcome refuge during a thunderstorm. Ms. Slobodeniuk now visits the trees in their new home.
“I miss them very much,” she said.