TBILISI, Georgia — The Rolls-Royce is out of action. It can't cope with the potholed tracks that pass for roads here.
Construction on the mansion is just crawling along. And business is slow for Nugzar Shevardnadze, one of the richest and most controversial men in Georgia, the former Soviet republic to the south of Russia.
He also has one of the most famous names in the country. His uncle is the longtime president of Georgia, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, and his opponents claim that he seized a good slice of the economy thanks to his relationship with the president.
And in Georgia, that may not be difficult: This is a country where the three big business clans are all related to the president, and analysts say it's impossible to get anywhere in big business if you are not.
But Nugzar Shevardnadze, 50, has become a political embarrassment for his uncle, especially with media accusations of financial misdeeds. He claims that he's being victimized and that it's hurting his business.
Shevardnadze is open about how he started out in business: dishonestly. In Soviet times, he argues, it was OK to be dishonest. Lying and stealing came easily when you were merely cheating the Soviet regime. But now, he says, it's impossible for him to be dishonest.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he insists, his business went legitimate. His company is now mainly involved in gasoline and fuel transport, and he says he wants to expand into tourism.
"In my heart, it's difficult to do anything illegal now," he said. "Life is tough in Georgia today. Why would we want to steal from the poor? We don't want to, because God would punish us."
Apparently, he's also worried about punishment from more secular avengers: Shevardnadze's office and adjoining apartments are protected by steel doors so thick they can withstand a blast from a grenade launcher. And he drives a $100,000 armored Mercedes sport-utility vehicle.
Like many Georgians, Shevardnadze is effusive, proud and given to extravagant and sentimental rhetoric. He reigns at the center of his financial clan like a Roman emperor, surrounded by fawning subordinates. The heavy gold wrist chain and the necktie that he has impatiently pulled askew convey his casual authority.
His father was a district party boss under the Soviets, someone who lived modestly and was so strict about refusing bribes that he once returned a box of chocolates someone left at his home. He was unaware that Nugzar, then a child, had carefully broken into the box from underneath to steal most of its contents.
"We were honest but poor," said the son, recalling "broken parquet and only one chandelier."
'Stealing Money From the Soviet Budget'
When he was 19, Shevardnadze defied his father, skirting the Soviet regulations that outlawed private business.
"I decided to work in black business," he said. "I'd been taught to live by the laws of the USSR, but I had to work against those laws."
He was soon part of a fast-living set of young people who would fly to Moscow for the weekend to party. He took over a wool factory and built another, concealing his control through managers who were his allies. To make it in business, he paid big bribes.
"If they caught you, they'd shoot you," he said. "Back then, we were stealing money from the Soviet budget. Everyone was stealing money wherever they could.
"We were stealing money in a very civilized and cultured manner."
Shevardnadze hid the illegal proceeds of his factories in a honey business and managed to get false certification exaggerating how much honey was sent to the Soviet authorities.
"That's how I legalized my proceeds and was able to buy a car," he said. But he had to hide his new BMW, unheard of in Soviet Georgia, in a garage in Moscow.
Shevardnadze hasn't lost his love of concealing things. In a hall at ground level of the mansion he's building, the marble floor glides back to reveal a swimming pool.
He got the land for the house during Soviet times, when it was illegal to own property. A professor who was entitled to use the land acquired it for him.
The vast home is designed to look like a European palace, with layers of balconies and turrets. Its construction is Shevardnadze's hobby.
"It will stand for centuries," he boasted. He loves interfering to change the balconies and layouts, or to choose timbers and tiles.
"I've had so many fights," he said.
But the pet project suffers. Shevardnadze had to lay off half the 200-member crew at the work site. His gasoline business, he says, can't compete with fuel smugglers.
Nonetheless, he surrounds himself with the trappings of wealth and power. Lunching at his favorite restaurant, Shevardnadze is accompanied by a large group of associates and managers, all of whom agree with everything he says, unless it's to question whether the best dish on the banquet table is the Georgian cheese bread or the fried trout. There are so many dishes, they have to be piled up, one on top of another.