Saakashvili’s Return to Georgia: Game Changer or a Vain Sacrifice?

Georgia has always been a country of personalities and therefore its politics is very much defined by its leaders. Georgian people tend to put their trust in a single leader who is seen as strong enough to lead and to rescue the country from its multiple “enemies”-unemployment and poverty being two of the prominent amongst many. In recent years though, many commentators from the media, NGOs, and the general public (mostly educated elites) concluded that this model of governance – one party, wrapped around the finger of one person, does not work and is actually disastrous for the country which intends to build a thriving democracy in the region. So, they call for diversity in politics, and believe that a multi-party collaboration in government will finally lead to the creation of a true democracy. This is seen as the way to prevent repeating the mistakes of the past two governments or rather two men, who in a true Georgian style practically exercised absolute power.

The crisis which erupted (and still ongoing) in the Fall of 2021, demonstrated once again that despite these voices, the majority of people are still largely influenced by two leaders. Georgians tend to see the political landscape very much as a battlefield not even between two political parties – “Georgian Dream” and “National Movement” but between two men Mikheil Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili. The specific event which serves as an evidence of the truthfulness of the above statement is the recent groundbreaking return of Georgia’s ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili to Georgia after 8 years of political exile.

Soon after the last government change in Georgia in 2012, with “Georgian Dream” coming into power, President Saakashvili left the country, moved to Ukraine and  continued his political career there. However, he also remained active in Georgian politics, though from a distance. While many in the opposition and some even from his own party tried to distance themselves from a powerful but very controversial leader, he very much remained a significant figure. Even though he has not formally held the role of the Head of the party for years now, the majority of the supporters of the “National Movement” party are also personal followers of Saakashvili or “Misha” as he is often referred to in Georgia.

Due to his refusal to leave the political arena, as was recently admitted by the Prime Minister of Georgia Irakli Gharibashvili, few criminal cases have been brought against him.  Considering he was formally charged and sentenced to six years of prison, Saakashvili was prevented from returning to Georgia, but he kept his supporters’ hopes up over the years, by announcing his inevitable return on social media during each election season. For years elections would come and go, but he never actually came back to Georgia.

The same happened this October when the municipal elections of heightened importance were scheduled. The results of the last parliamentary elections (October 2020) led to the major political crisis and accusations of the elections being rigged, a multi-round negotiations took place between the government and opposition parties mediated by diplomatic representations and specifically the President of the European Council-Charles Michel. Finally, both sides were convinced to sign the so called “Charles Michele Agreement” according to which the government would schedule a pre-term parliamentary election, if they failed to get 43% of the votes in the next (upcoming) nationwide municipality elections.  Thus, raising the stakes of the municipal elections (aka referendum).

In September 2021, a few weeks before the elections, Saakashvili once again announced that this time for sure he would be in Georgia by the time of the elections.  The media spent several weeks devoted to the public discussion on whether he would really keep his promise and make his big come back. Saakashvili even published a picture of his flight ticket from Kiev to Tbilisi online and a new movement of volunteers was established to meet him at the airport and ensure his physical safety – stopping the government forces from arresting him.

As it turned out the return was indeed real this time, however, it did not quite go as announced. He did not take the scheduled flight from Kiev to Tbilisi, rather he miraculously managed to sneak into the country by land via a third country.  A day before the elections (1 October), he uploaded a video on his Facebook page from Batumi, announcing that he was finally in Georgia. The government reacted by claiming that the video was fabricated thereby denying his physical presence within Georgian territory. In a bizarre twist of events, at the end of the same day, the Prime Minister held a press conference announcing that they arrested the person, who they had claimed for the entire day was not even in the country. Thus, the ex-president´s big return not only shocked people but also brought on a huge embarrassment for the government and specifically for the intelligence community. This was because, first they refused to admit that he indeed managed to sneak into the country and secondly because as it later turned out he had been in Georgia for 4 days before the police finally managed to arrest him in Tbilisi at an apartment where he willingly gave in.

On 2 October, the elections took place as scheduled and the results demonstrated the tangible effect of Saakashvili´s return. The Government could not win in the first round in any of the major Georgian cities and most importantly in the capital – Tbilisi where 1/3 of the Georgian population lives. On the other hand, Saakashvili went on a hunger strike hours after his arrest.

It seems that Saakashvili’s plans and efforts are paying off, since it keeps a constant pressure on Ivanishvili´s government, which does not have much to show for itself after its own 9 years in government. To this day, the main message, “victory” and the continued promise of this party is to end the political existence of the United National Movement and its leader- Mikheil Saakashvili, who they see as a destructive leader and even blame him for starting the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia.

Saakashvili is indeed a controversial figure in Georgian politics and history. Georgia has not had many presidents since it only left Soviet rule in the early 1990s. Saakashvili,  who is the third president of Georgia, is particularly a political star as the author of the Rose Revolution of 2003. After the revolution, under his government, the country experienced previously unprecedented economic growth. A small Caucasian country became known as the beacon of democracy and even welcomed the American President (George W. Bush). On the other hand, it is also acknowledged that during his nine years, Saakashvili’s regime was also characterized by many mistakes if not crimes (mainly abuse of power & restriction of freedom of speech) however  proving  any from the specific personal charges against the ex-President within the current Georgian justice system, seems to be impossible, since no one, either within the country or abroad (U.S. and EU) has any trust in its independence because of its growing political nature.

The recent demonstration held at  Tbilisi’s main square, demanding the release of Misha from prison, also proved once again that despite many attempts to introduce multiplicity in Georgian politics, the landscape still remains polarized and leader oriented. This was the first time in the last 9 years that opposition managed to collect this many people in an open protest.

On 30 October, the run-offs to the municipal elections took place. As has been its long-lasting tradition for this government, they used many mechanisms within their ruling power including bribery of voters to win the elections in majority of cities. Only one small town (Tsalenjikha) was won by the opposition, however the crisis did not end with the elections.

Saakashvili had spent more than 40 days on a hunger strike and even when the lethal consequence became a real possibility, government refused to transfer him to a civil, multi-profile hospital which was recommended by multiple medical Conciliums. Rather he was transferred to Gldani prison – an institution where they keep the criminals serving sentences for the most severe crimes, which also happens to have a medical facility or rather ambulatory on its grounds. Despite the ex-president´s clear refusal to be transported there, the government managed to do so by first lying to him that he was being transported to a civil hospital. Using this deception, authorities  got him out of Rustavi prison (where he first was  detained) and later (once he realized that actually he was not being taken to a private clinic) they physically dragged him from the ambulance car and put him in the supposed medical center of the Gldani prison, which is underequipped, understaffed and generally unfit to provide him with the medical support he needed.

This is not even the end of the violations which took place in the last couple of weeks. Saakashvili was even denied the right to appear at his own trials at courts to defend himself. As analysts explain, the government is afraid of showing him to the general public. So, on one hand, the government refused to take him to a hospital where he could receive much needed medical care and recover from the many days of his hunger strike while also using his deteriorating health as one of the arguments for not letting him appear in court to defend his case, claiming that he was too weak.

Another major group of violations was multiple denials to meet with certain people. Saakashvili is officially a Ukrainian citizen, and the public defender of Ukraine was denied the permission to visit him in Gldani prison. The same happened to a member of the European Parliament and the ex-Foreign Affairs Minister of Poland – Anna Fotyga who travelled to Georgia to meet with Saakashvili. She was denied the permit to visit Saakashvili in Prison.

As a reaction to governments ‘unlawful and inhumane treatment of Saakashvili several doctors & members of the Georgian Parliament have themselves gone on a hunger strike in the parliament building demanding his transfer to a civil hospital. Simultaneously thousands of people held continued demonstrations for multiple days asking for his transfer. Finally, on 19 November after his collapse at the prison, government made the decision to transfer him to one of the civil hospitals. Currently he is receiving treatment at a military hospital in Gori, however having starved for 50 days his health is in a very bad condition and it is still unclear if he will fully recover.

The clearly unlawful and even inhumane treatment of Georgia’s ex-President, who is also an important pro-Western regional leader, brought to light the increasingly anti-western direction that the current Georgian government has been taking. Actions have consequences and through its actions “Georgian Dream” ensures that Georgia, despite its on-paper declaration of intent to join the EU, will in fact distance itself from the institution. The situation on the ground remains volatile and unpredictable. One thing is clear though – Saakashvili’s big return has been an ultimate game-changer, which reignited protest of people and exposed many negative practices of Georgian political elite, which already existed but perhaps were not clear enough for everyone. However, the game is ongoing, and the results are still unannounced. Whatever the results are going to be, Saakashvili is bound to play an important role in this ever-evolving story.

Teona Kvirikashvili is a Georgian lawyer with Honors LL.B. from Tbilisi State University and Master’s degree in International Law from the University of St. Gallen (HSG). She has worked at several diplomatic representations in Georgia and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Lucerne. She is also a member of the Georgian diplomatic reserve.

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