Saakashvili’s Hunger Strike Goes On
A portrait of Georgian former President Mikheil Saakashvili is seen on a screen as people attend a rally demanding his release from jail in Tbilisi, Georgia October 14, 2021. REUTERS/Irakli Gedenidze
Two weeks into his prison hunger strike, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili continues to seek attention following his daring but ultimately ineffective dash to Georgia. His stunt failed to cause a significant anti-government swing in the recent local elections, which were won fairly convincingly by the ruling Georgia Dream party, but his supporters fight on.
Saakashvili originally left Georgia in 2013, the year he lost a general election after serving two terms as the country’s staunchly pro-Western reformist leader. He later gave up his Georgian citizenship, becoming a Ukrainian citizen so that he could be appointed governor of the Odesa region in May 2015. Saakashvili attempted an anti-corruption campaign but resigned in November 2016 and was later stripped of his new Ukrainian citizenship, becoming temporarily stateless. Meanwhile, in Georgia, he was sentenced in absentia to six years in jail for allegedly concealing evidence over two specific crimes committed when he was president.
Saakashvili in Ukraine, 2018. Image: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock
Though Saakashvili claims that the charges are politically motivated, it is no real surprise that he was promptly arrested when he returned to Georgia on October 1, 2021. Indeed, his demeanour as he was escorted into detention suggested that arrest was all part of the plan. Once arrested, he announced very swiftly that he would start a hunger strike.
Saakashvili’s arrest on October 1 appeared to be part of the plan.
Overall, the reaction to his 2021 Georgian return appears more muted than his 2017 return to Ukraine. There too, he had crossed illegally into a country, having briefly been stripped of Ukrainian citizenship in July of that year. The circumstances of that return, though, were very different as he did not face criminal charges on arrival other than that of illegal entry. Moreover, the sheer size of the crowd of his supporters then meant that he could claim that he had simply been swept into the country by force of numbers.
On September 10, 2017, Saakashvili’s supporters, including Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, essentially pushed him across the Polish-Ukrainian border at Medyka/Shehyni. Image: Bumble Dee/Shutterstock
The 2021 stunt was different in that Saakashvili appeared to have sneaked across the border at night then announced his arrival by social media. Some journalists, such as Melik Kaylan in a recent Forbes article, have since called on the West to side with Saakashvili. However, many other international analysts consider that his move has simply added to the messy polarisation of Georgian politics. An extra twist in the tail of this story was Saakashvili’s revelation of a ‘fresh start’ relationship with Yelyzaveta ‘Lisa’ Yasko, a Ukrainian MP 22 years his junior. This came as a considerable surprise to his Dutch-born wife, who continues to call for his release.
On October 12, Yasko posted Instagram photos of a vigil outside the Rustavi prison in which her recently acknowledged partner is incarcerated. However, the crowd looked restrained and very small. Earlier, Saakashvili’s doctor, Nikoloz Kipshidze, was quoted as saying that his patient might need hospital treatment due to a worsening health condition brought on by his hunger strike combined with a pre-existing blood disorder. However, the Georgian prison service denied the claim and called Saakashvili's condition "satisfactory" and released details of his blood pressure, pulse rate and glucose levels to back up their position.
On October 14, with Saakashvili’s hunger strike now two weeks old, the issue was picked up in some EU circles, with the Polish foreign ministry tweeting its concern for Saakashvili’s health. The same evening, a large, well-organized demonstration in central Tbilisi drew thousands of Saakashvili supporters.
Thousands of Georgians turned out in central Tbilisi at 6pm on October 14 in a rally organised by the opposition UNM (United National Movement) calling for Saakashvili's release. The large crowds dispersed peacefully by around 10pm.
The hungry Saakashvili seems ultimately prepared to face his jail sentence. He and his team believe that his necessary appearance in court is being deliberately delayed until after the run-off elections for several important mayoral elections (where the results of the October 2nd poll were too close to declare a clear winner). The theatrics of Georgian politics continue.