Saakashvili Pops Up and Gets Arrested In the Latest Act of Georgia’s Ever-exciting Political Theatre
Georgia’s ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili steps into the unknown with a daring dash back to his homeland, where he faces a jail term. Image: paparazzza/Shutterstock
Georgia’s drama-filled political theatre took another remarkable turn on Friday (October 1, 2021) with the secret arrival back in the country of Mikheil Saakashvili. The secret didn’t last, and before long, the former president had shared his whereabouts with his Facebook followers and thereby the world in general. Saakashvili gained international fame during his period in power (2004-2013) by leading his country’s wholesale political realignment towards the West. However, he was also seen as responsible for the disastrous course of the 2008 war with Russia. The end of his period of leadership was erratic, and soon after losing the 2013 election, he left Georgia. While in self-imposed exile, he was sentenced in absentia to a six-year prison term for abuse of power – a charge he claims is politically motivated. So his return this weekend was bound to cause a stir.
The timing of his return was no accident. On Saturday, the country held local elections: 64 races to pick mayors and municipal councils. Normally that’s not the kind of event that would cause great excitement. This time, however, the elections were special in that they were widely seen as a referendum on the legitimacy of the current government led by the Georgia Dream (GD) coalition. To understand why they were seen this way requires a reminder of the last year’s political drama.
Back in November 2020, the GD had won a narrow win in the general election, but this was disputed by opposition groups leading to months of protests. Most vociferous in their complaints were members of the United National Movement (UNM), the former ruling party with which Mikheil Saakashvili had originally come to power in 2003. It is now chaired by Nika Melia, whose arrest in February poured petrol on the political fire. However, in April, the EU’s Charles Michel brokered a cross-party agreement under which the chaos of protests would stop in return for the release of two ‘political prisoners’ (including Melia), a simplification of the voting system, and the key proviso that if the GD should fail to poll less than 43% in the October 2021 local elections, this would be classed as a trigger for a snap general election at the national level. Initially, GD signed the deal and Melia was released accordingly.
However, though some opposition parties had also ratified the Michel agreement, the UNM never signed. Frustrated with that refusal, on July 28, Georgia Dream itself withdrew from the agreement – perhaps because it was also aware that following the breakaway of ex-prime minister Giorgi Gakharia to form his own party, the chance of GD reaching the 43% target in October would be optimistic.
Underlining the point, GD’s chairperson Irakli Kobakhidze said in August that “no [parliamentary] elections will take place until the one scheduled for 2024,” whatever the results in October. However, this had not stopped opposition groups from continuing to put a strong emphasis on this weekend’s local polls. There’s little doubt that Saakashvili’s return aimed to underline this message and persuade more opposition followers to turn out for the vote.
Saakashvili’s arrest was more or less assured from the moment he sneaked across the border, and sure enough – after initial denials of his presence on Georgian soil – he was taken into custody. Videos showed him in a white sweatshirt beaming with smiles for the cameras as he was escorted handcuffed into a police station. This appeared to be all part of the plan. “Going to prison is part of political life [in Georgia],” according to analyst Thornike Gordadze who, on France 24, suggested that the perceived bravery of Saakashvili’s stunt would likely help restore his status amongst those opposition factions which have previously been against or ambivalent towards him.
In the end, Saakashvili’s move proved a side show. Final results gave Georgia Dream 46.7% of the vote – comfortably above the 43% threshold – though Transparency International criticized the early release of provisional statistics and cited around 160 possible polling violations. Nonetheless, the contests in 20 of the 64 races were too close for any one candidate to win outright, so a second round of runoff elections will be required on October 30, including the critical contest for mayor of Tbilisi. The UNM’s candidate for that role is none other than Nika Melia, who has stated that “The fight for Tbilisi is the front line in this referendum, through which we will take back Georgia.”
Meanwhile, Saakashvili remains under arrest while his Facebook page has been pinned with a handwritten note calling on his supporters not to lose faith.