Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili says he is not surprised by the current political turmoil engulfing the South Caucasus nation. In an interview with Current Time, he argued that it's the result of an ongoing crackdown on opponents of the government, including himself.
Police stormed the party offices of opposition leader Nika Melia and detained him on February 23, ratcheting up a crisis that gathered momentum when the prime minister resigned last week.
Melia's supporters had barricaded themselves in the offices, using furniture to block the doors. Scores of police surged into the building during the early morning raid in Tbilisi.
Seventeen people were reported to have been hurt in the scuffles between police and activists. Some activists were coughing and suffered eye irritation after police sprayed gas toward them from hand-held canisters. Melia, the United National Movement (ENM) party's chairman, has been accused of inciting violence at street protests in June 2019, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
Saakashvili, who founded the ENM party and served as Georgia's president from 2004 to 2013 after helping lead the massive, peaceful protests in 2003 known as the Rose Revolution, said Melia's arrest was the latest attempt by the current rulers to sideline the opposition.
"At first they blocked my entry into the country under the pretext of far-fetched criminal cases," Saakashvili, who left Georgia shortly after leaving office and has not been back, told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
"Now, when I wasn't able to lead the party, the party chose Nika Melia as its leader by electronic voting. And they have arrested him also on a far-fetched pretext: for allegedly fighting with the police at a rally two years ago," he said.
Melia was charged in connection with protests that erupted in 2019 after Russian lawmaker Sergei Gavrilov occupied the Georgian speaker's seat in parliament, a symbolic reminder of Russia's unwanted influence over its smaller southern neighbor.
Saakashvili, 53, told Current Time that he and Melia weren't the only members of the ENM party to have been targeted by the government under the ruling Georgian Dream party.
"I'd just like to say that other members of our party have been imprisoned. A criminal probe was launched, and several hundred people, leaders and activists of our party, were forced to flee the country abroad," Saakashvili said.
In Georgia, Saakashvili has been prosecuted by the government that came to power after his party's defeat in 2012 parliamentary elections. In 2018, he was sentenced in absentia to a total of nine years in prison after being convicted of abuse of power in two separate cases.
Prosecutors also said that he was wanted in his native country for allegedly authorizing a plot to kill an opposition politician who died in Britain in 2008.
Saakashvili, who has rejected all charges as politically motivated, started a new political career in Ukraine in 2015.
In the interview with Current Time, Saakashvili again repeated claims that parliamentary elections won by Georgia Dream last autumn were rigged.
International observers said the October 31 vote, which triggered protests, was broadly free and fair.
Two months after the controversial poll, the Georgian Dream party leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili, announced he was quitting politics.
He served as prime minister in 2012-13, but opponents accused him of running the country of 3.7 million from behind the scenes after he stepped down from that position.
Ivanishvili, who made much of the $4.8 billion Forbes estimates he is worth in Russia in metals and banking in the 1990s, has also been accused by opponents of being close to the Kremlin, something he denies.
"I think what has happened over the past 24 hours has been taking place over the past few years. And what happened over the past day is just the culmination of what has taken place in recent years. The Russian model -- 'Belarusization' -- has been introduced into Georgia. But what can you expect when an oligarch takes power," said Saakashvili in a thinly veiled reference to Ivanishvili.
Saakashvili also likened the current situation in Georgia to Belarus and Russia, where state authorities have cracked down hard on street protests, and accused the West of failing to rebuke Tbilisi, in contrast to its criticism of the actions of Minsk and Moscow.
Thousands of people have been arrested and beaten in Belarus since long-time leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory in an August 2020 presidential election that his opponents and the West say was rigged.
Russia was the scene of unprecedented nationwide protests in January after opposition leader Aleksei Navalny was arrested and jailed after returning to Moscow from Germany, where he had recovered from a poisoning that he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of ordering.
"Why has the West been silent until now? Yes, now they have begun to talk about what is happening in Georgia, but why have they been silent until now? It's just immoral. How is Georgia different from Belarus? There's no difference. The economic situation in Belarus is slightly better. How is Georgia different from Russia? There's no difference. It's just that the economic situation in Russia is slightly better," Saakashvili argued. "Everything else: arrests, intimidation, blackmailing the opposition, rhetoric of the authorities -- everything is absolutely one and the same."
Saakashvili, a fierce critic of Putin, said he believes the Russian president "is extremely pleased by what is happening in Georgia."
Russian forces pushed deep into Georgia in a five-day war in 2008 that erupted in the Russian-backed breakaway region of South Ossetia. After the war, Russia recognized South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, as independent -- a move condemned by the West, which has backed Georgia's territorial integrity.