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Instead Of A Hero's Welcome, Georgian Ex-President Saakashvili Faces Years In Prison

United National Movement supporters protest the arrest of the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in front of the prison in Rustavi on October 4.
United National Movement supporters protest the arrest of the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in front of the prison in Rustavi on October 4.

The crowd was probably smaller than Mikheil Saakashvili would have hoped. On the evening of October 4, hundreds, not thousands, of people gathered outside a prison in Georgia to demand the release of the country's controversial former president.

Three days earlier, on October 1, Saakashvili had returned from Ukraine hoping to make a political comeback in his homeland by leading the opposition movement to victory in crucial elections.

It didn't work. Just hours after he posted videos on Facebook saying he had returned to the country, Saakashvili was arrested and incarcerated in Rustavi, a small city 25 kilometers southeast of the capital, Tbilisi. And in nationwide local elections held the next day, the United National Movement (ENM), the party Saakashvili founded, was outpolled decisively by the ruling Georgian Dream party.

Georgian ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili is escorted by police officers as he arrives at a prison in Rustavi on October 1.
Georgian ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili is escorted by police officers as he arrives at a prison in Rustavi on October 1.

The relatively small crowd outside the prison in Rustavi suggests that Saakashvili's popularity in his homeland is not what it once was, analysts say.

"Saakashvili underestimates how much Georgia has moved on since he left. He has 20 or 30 percent support, but a larger percentage of people opposes him or are indifferent," said Thomas de Waal, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, in an interview with RFE/RL.

"He thinks of himself as a savior who can trigger another Rose Revolution but I don't think the Georgian public is interested in that, to be honest," de Waal said, referring to the 2003 protest movement that swept aside the corrupt Soviet-era elite and brought Saakashvili to power.

Supporters Of Georgian Ex-President Saakashvili Rally To Demand His Release From Prison
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As president, Saakashvili was first credited with pushing through much-needed reforms, triggering praise in the West, but rumblings of discontent grew among those Georgians impacted by his changes. Over time, the charismatic and polarizing Saakashvili accumulated many critics, who faulted him for his increasingly autocratic style of rule.

Saakashvili left Georgia in 2014 and became a Ukrainian citizen, where he served as governor of the Odesa region before falling out with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. He was stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship in 2017, and, after a series of standoffs with the authorities, was finally deported to Poland in 2018.

In 2018, a court in Georgia sentenced Saakashvili to six years in prison for abuse of power, after he was accused of trying to cover up evidence relating to the beating of an opposition lawmaker. He also faces several other charges stemming from his 2004-13 presidency, including the violent dispersal of a protest and a raid on a television station started by a political rival.

While Saakashvili's motivations for returning are unclear, some observers have speculated that the former president sensed his chances of a political comeback were greater than ever.

The October 2 elections were viewed as a referendum on the ruling Georgian Dream party, whose popularity has dipped recently. Georgia was plunged into political turmoil last year after opposition parties said elections won by the ruling party were rigged. The country has recently been rocked by a wiretapping scandal, which appears to show the widescale and long-running state surveillance of prominent journalists, clergymen, and public officials.

Ahead of the latest poll, Saakashvili issued a video appeal for Georgians to not only vote but to take to the streets a day after the polls closed.

"Georgia hasn't had a weaker government in the nine years since Saakashvili left power," said Egor Kuroptev, director of the Free Russia Foundation in the South Caucasus. "[The government is] the weakest, and, in principle, not very legitimate -- not in terms of elections, but their own record of action. It's been nothing but scandal and chaos, unfortunately," he told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

And while the ruling party appears to have scored a convincing victory, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said that Saakashvili's arrival had helped the opposition and accounted for Georgian Dream losing support. The ruling party's mayoral candidates failed to surpass the required 50 percent threshold in the key cities of Tbilisi, Batumi, Kutaisi, Poti, and Rustavi and runoffs are scheduled for October 30.

Jail Time

Georgia's ruling authorities have so far given little indication that Saakashvili will be treated leniently. Gharibashvili said on October 3 that Saakashvili, who dismisses the charges against him as politically motivated, would serve his full term of six years in prison. President Salome Zurabishvili, a former ally who was Saakashvili's first foreign minister, has said that she will not consider offering him a pardon.

How much jail time Saakashvili will actually serve is unclear, but Kuroptev says that he will, at the latest, be freed when parliamentary elections are held in 2024. "Of course, he has no guarantees when he will be released from prison. Will it be in two days or two years?" Kuroptev told Current Time.

"I would, however, argue with those who contend he will serve the full six years because there will anyhow be a change of power in 2024," he said. "But that is the maximum [time he will serve] as the situation in the country is far from simple."

Supporters outside the prison in Rustavi have said they will continue their protests in the coming days, while Saakashvili himself has vowed to continue a hunger strike he reportedly started after his arrest.

But if those tactics prove to be ineffective, Saakashvili may be reliant on outside actors to secure his freedom.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who restored his Ukrainian citizenship back in 2019, has vowed to work for the release of Saakashvili, who since May 2020 has headed the president's executive committee of the National Reforms Council, a body tasked with overseeing reforms in the corruption-ridden country.

What exactly Zelenskiy will be able to achieve, though, is unclear, argues Kornely Kakachia, director of the Tbilisi-based Georgian Institute of Politics. Ultimately, Zelenskiy, will be careful not to harm ties with Tbilisi, a key backer for Kyiv, he said.

The U.S. State Department said on October 4 that Washington was paying close attention to developments in Georgia and urged the government in Tbilisi to ensure Saakashvili is treated fairly.

Kakachia said that there will likely be more red flags for the West after statements by the Georgian prime minister that "more articles," or criminal charges, will be added to Saakashvili's case if "he does not behave."

"These types of statements should not be coming from the prime minister but the judiciary," Kakachia told RFE/RL.

The options Western countries may have are likely limited, de Waal says. "This is a nightmare for Georgia's Western partners. They are doing everything they can to get Georgia out of this bizarre political polarization and move on to a pragmatic, real political agenda, but it's gotten a whole lot worse," de Waal said, adding that Gharibashvili was likely to ignore Western appeals.

"Georgian Dream doesn't listen to the West in its war on Saakashvili," de Waal said, noting that earlier this year Tbilisi refused an $89 million EU loan that was conditioned on judicial reform and upholding a power-sharing agreement that Brussels had brokered.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.