November 15, 2014
Kakha Bendukidze, a biologist who became a wealthy businessman in the final years of the Soviet Union and, later, an architect of sweeping economic and governmental changes as a senior official in his native Georgia, died Thursday in London. He was 58.
The apparent cause was heart failure, his sister, Nunu Bendukidze, said through a spokeswoman. He had recently undergone minor heart surgery.
Mr. Bendukidze (pronounced ben-du-KEED-zeh) considered Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, to be his home, though in recent months he had spent time in Kiev, Ukraine, as an adviser to President Petro O. Poroshenko. At the time of his death, he had been expected to accept an official government position there.
A big man in both physical stature and force of personality, Mr. Bendukidze crusaded for market changes and economic modernization in Russia before he left the country in 2004; in Georgia, where he was economics minister; , and throughout the former Soviet Union.
As economics minister, Mr. Bendukidze led efforts to cut tax rates and eliminate many regulations in an aggressive restructuring. The measures were at the center of a broader push to overhaul the Georgian government, which had been mired in post-Soviet dysfunction and corruption for more than a decade.
Though President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration was later criticized as heavy-handed, particularly in law enforcement, its efforts to modernize Georgia’s economy and revamp its government were praised, especially in the West, and became a model for other countries, even Russia.
Mr. Bendukidze signaled his unconventional approach when he promised to eliminate even his own ministry of economic development; a normal country with a functioning market economy, he said, should not need one. Although the ministry was retained, it was renamed the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development in 2010.
Mr. Bendukidze was born on April 20, 1956, in Tbilisi, which was then part of the Soviet Union. His father, Avtandil, was a professor of mathematics at Tbilisi State University. His mother, Julietta Rukhadze, was a historian and ethnographer.
He earned degrees in biology from Tbilisi State in 1977 and from Moscow State University in 1980. In Moscow, he began his career as a laboratory biologist.
In 1987, in the wake of Mikhail S. Gorbachev’s economic liberalization efforts, Mr. Bendukidze started his own business, Bioprocess, which manufactured biochemicals for scientific research.
When the Soviet Union began privatizing state enterprises, Mr. Bendukidze vastly expanded his holdings, which ultimately included Uralmash, the country’s signature heavy machinery factory, and numerous other businesses in machine building, energy and chemical industries, under the umbrella of a holding company, OMZ.
His involvement in public policy began in Russia. In 1992, he formed the Entrepreneurial Political Initiative-92 with Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, who would later be jailed and whose oil company, Yukos, would be seized by the Russian government.
Mr. Bendukidze soon became known as one of Russia’s leading libertarians. He led a working group on tax and currency within the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs and pressed for changes in tax policy, which ultimately included adoption of a flat 13 percent tax rate.
Later, as economics minister in Georgia, he helped impose a similar 12 percent flat rate.
In Russia, he was a strong opponent of government intervention in the economy, a view that put him at odds with President Vladimir V. Putin. Afraid his businesses, like Mr. Khodorkovsky’s, would become a Kremlin target, Mr. Bendukidze sold his stake and moved back to Georgia.
He was economics minister from June 2004 to January 2008 and then the chief administrator of the government for more than a year. In both positions, he was a fierce advocate of deregulation and privatization. Critics accused him of seeking to sell off national assets, including ports and railroads.
He created a charity called the Knowledge Foundation, and he was the force behind the establishment of the Free University of Tbilisi and the Agricultural University of Georgia.
Mr. Bendukidze retained a fascination with science and an instinct for business and investment, and in recent years had developed a particular interest in aquaculture. From 2010 until 2012, he was the major stakeholder in AquaBounty Technologies, a company that developed a farm-raised salmon, genetically modified to grow faster.
In addition to his sister, he is survived by his wife, Nataliya Zolotova.
This year, he took an active role in helping the new government of Ukraine, amid its violent confrontation with Russia.
In an interview in September, Mr. Bendukidze was excited about his work in Kiev, but also cutting in his criticism of Ukraine and cautious about its chances.
“Ukraine is one of the most unreformed economies in the post-Soviet space,” he said. “They need a lot of bold reforms.”