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15 October 2021

Mikheil Saakashvili’s return from Ukraine convulses Georgia’s fragile democracy

The Caucasian country’s former president, now under arrest, has revived an enduring political rivalry.

By Ido Vock

When Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s flamboyant former president, posted a video on Facebook claiming to show him in the coastal city of Batumi, it was greeted with disbelief in the country. Few Georgians really believed that Misha, as he is universally known, would have the guts to return from Ukraine, where he had been living since 2013, to face certain arrest from his political opponents in the government. He had promised for years that his return was imminent but, faced with the threat of certain arrest, had never followed through.

Yet it transpired that the grainy footage really did show Saakashvili in Georgia. Municipal elections, seen as a litmus test of the current ruling party’s commitment to pluralism and Georgia’s pro-Western alignment, provided the trigger for him to finally cross into the country. 

Days later, on 1 October, the energetic pro-Western reformer, who led Georgia from 2004 to 2013, was arrested in a high-profile raid by police. He has since been held in prison in a provincial city, where his lawyers say he is currently on hunger strike.

Saakashvili’s return and prompt arrest convulsed Georgia, reviving its most enduring political rivalry. His dedicated supporters view the former president as a successful reformer who rooted out corruption and brought Georgia closer to the West. By contrast, his opponents in the government see him as a discredited failure who triggered a catastrophic war with Russia in 2008. Tens of thousands of supporters of Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement (ENM), this week rallied to demand his release. 

While the ENM called for protests demanding Saakashvili’s release, other opposition parties have been more circumspect. In part, this reflects their desire to break the duopoly of Georgian politics, still largely structured around the personalities of Saakashvili and Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man and the founder of its ruling party, Georgian Dream (GD). Saakashvili, they believe, is too polarising a figure for the opposition to coalesce around if they wish to unseat the government. 

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Moreover, GD has in recent months shown an increasing willingness to defy the opposition and Georgia’s Western allies, who believe coalition governments are the answer to enduring political polarisation. The government reneged on an EU-mediated agreement with the opposition, according to which new legislative elections would have been held if GD secured less than 43 per cent of the vote in this month’s municipal elections. 

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What now happens to Saakashvili, a Ukrainian citizen, remains unclear. He probably does not command enough popular support to force the government to release him, or even negotiate with his faction. Ukraine and some Western governments have called for his release, but international support has been relatively muted, indicating that some allies view the eccentric former leader as more of a hindrance than a help, even if they are no great fans of the current government. 

[See also: Is “state capture” undoing Georgia’s democracy?]