Supporters of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili were finally rewarded with a taste of their hero when he appeared behind a barred window in Rustavi prison last week. “Misha! Misha!” they sang.
Prison guards pulled him out of sight, but not before he was pictured smiling and making a sign with his heart with his hands. Even from behind bars, he continues to make headlines.
Citizens gathered to encourage @SaakashviliM and to protest his political imprisonment
– Mtavari TV (@MtavariChannel) October 21, 2021
Saakashvili made a surprise return to Georgia after eight years of exile on the eve of local elections. He was arrested on October 1, wanted for his conviction in absentia for abuse of power.
“Back in the orbit of Russia”
He has since been on hunger strike claiming to be a political prisoner.
“Why did I give up my freedom and my life as a Ukrainian government official to become a prisoner of conscience in my homeland?” he wrote on the 17th day of his hunger strike.
“I couldn’t watch from afar as the country I worked so hard to build, from a failed post-Soviet state to a nascent Western democracy and staunch ally of the United States, returned to Russia’s orbit.”
His lawyers and doctors say his health is deteriorating, while the Georgian Dream government claims this saga is a piece of political theater at the right time.
Irakli Kobakhidze, president of the ruling party, called Saakashvili’s hunger strike “a fake news” ahead of Saturday’s runoff of the mayor for control of five of the country’s main cities.
Dismissing the former president as “a normal prisoner”, he said he was nothing more than a spectacle: “I assure you that as soon as the elections are over, Saakashvili will no longer be on the agenda.”
Enemy number one
But the former president’s lawyers insist the government is making every effort to silence him, including by painting the windows of his cell and making it difficult for him to convey messages to the outside world.
On Wednesday, a member of Saakashvili’s legal team was denied entry to Tbilisi International Airport.
“I have experienced Georgian hospitality firsthand,” complained Ukrainian lawyer Evgen Grushovets.
The government is nervous, states the political scientist Gia Nodia: “They think that the presence of Mikheil Saakashvili is an important factor in the mobilization of the opposition and they want to reduce its effect”.
Since his departure from Georgia in late 2013, Mikheil Saakashvili has been the number 1 enemy of the ruling Georgian Dream party and its billionaire founder Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Decade of polarized politics
Although Ivanishvili no longer holds any official positions in the government, many Georgians believe that he still exerts an influence on the country’s politics.
On October 1, while announcing Saakashvili’s arrest on national TV, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili appeared to be dedicating his capture to his party founder.
After all, the rivalry between Bidzina Ivanishvili and Mikheil Saakashvili has dominated Georgian politics for the past decade.
“I appeal to Ivanishvili,” Saakashvili wrote in a recent letter from his prison cell.
“You’ve blacked out my windows and sealed them, you’ve cut my phone line, you’re even afraid to take me to the hospital, let alone to court.”
The rise of a pro-Western reformer
Mikheil Saakashvili was only 36 when he led the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, against the old Georgian leadership of the Soviet era.
He came to power the following year with over 96% of the vote and moved swiftly to push through reforms: cracking down on organized crime, rebuilding the police force, and cutting down on business bureaucracy.
Georgia’s economy exploded.
But in 2008, Georgia fought a five-day war with Russia over South Ossetia that resulted in a humiliating defeat, loss of territory and the displacement of tens of thousands of Georgians. As commander-in-chief, Saakashvili was ultimately held accountable.
His government has become increasingly authoritarian, shutting down a critical media channel, violently dispersing protests, extorting money from businesses and imprisoning thousands of people for minor offenses.
The last straw came in a video on the eve of the 2012 elections with allegations of torture and abuse in prison. The Georgians voted firmly against Saakashvili’s United National Movement ending his nine years in power.
New life as a Ukrainian governor
Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream coalition has pledged to try Saakashvili for abuse of power in office. But Saakashvili left Georgia for a new political career in Ukraine, later becoming governor of the southern Odessa region, where he vowed to repeat his reform agenda.
Yet it never stopped playing a role in Georgian political life. On opposition TV channels he allegedly criticized the Ivanishvili government and promised to eventually return to his homeland.
“Saakashvili clearly loves power, he has to be at the center of events,” says political analyst Gia Nodia, who believes he cannot afford to be marginalized. “He made this firm decision to come to Georgia now or never.”
Since his arrest, further charges have been made against the former president, including the illegal crossing of the state border of Georgia, allegedly stowed aboard a Ukrainian truck loaded with dairy products.
The government has ruled out any likelihood of early release, but there is a growing sense of unease over his continued detention.
And it is likely to continue to remain a thorn in the side of the current government, regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s mayor’s vote.
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