Imprisoned Saakashvili, loved by some Georgians, hated by others, faces grim future

18 December 2022, 10:53 AM
Mikheil Saakashvili prays for Ukraine on the dock during a court hearing in Tbilisi. March 17, 2022 (Photo:Irakli Gedenidze / REUTERS)

Mikheil Saakashvili prays for Ukraine on the dock during a court hearing in Tbilisi. March 17, 2022 (Photo:Irakli Gedenidze / REUTERS)

After more than a year in prison, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's health has deteriorated significantly. NV looks into what the future may hold for him, the cases opened against him, and how Georgian people and current authorities regard him.

A thin and emaciated man in a tracksuit moves around the hospital ward with help of a walker: this is how former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili looks in a video from surveillance cameras of the Vivamedi clinic released by the Georgian penitentiary service on Dec. 14.

Yelyzaveta Yasko, Saakashvili's common-law wife, who is a Ukrainian MP from the Servant of the People political party, was outraged when she spoke with NV.

Video of day

"This is a crime against his dignity, a violation of the right to medical confidentiality," she said.

"This was done to show that he is supposedly fine and he has good conditions in the hospital, but in fact we see that his condition is terrible – both physical and psychological.”

Saakashvili's life is now in grave danger, says Marta Ardashelia, editor-in-chief of the independent Georgian publication Sova News.

“Although he may no longer pose a threat to the current government in terms of returning to politics, he has loyal voters and is a symbol of a new Georgia – an anti-Soviet, independent, proud and a little bit rebellious, reformed and transparent European country," Ardashelia says.

But neither Russia nor the oligarch and current shadow leader of the country – Bidzina Ivanishvili, who considers the former president his personal enemy – wants such a Georgia.

Saakashvili was arrested shortly after his return to Georgia on the eve of local elections last fall. The politician, who was twice elected Georgian president between 2004 and 2013, had returned to his homeland for the first time in eight years.

During his absence, a number of criminal cases were initiated against Saakashvili in Georgia and he was convicted in absentia in two of them: for organizing an attack on former MPs, for which he received six years, and for abuse of office – three years. The former president was also accused of embezzling budget funds, and in 2021, illegal border crossing was added to the list of cases.

Saakashvili himself calls himself a "prisoner of Putin", and the cases against him political persecution. Over more than a year of imprisonment, he has been on hunger strike three times. The last time – on the day the video from the chamber was published because he was then denied a request to speak remotely at a court hearing on a petition for release or postponement of execution of the sentence.

The hearing was eventually postponed to Dec. 22, the BBC reports. Meanwhile, Saakashvili said he had ended his hunger strike, explaining that he did not want to give his critics reasons to accuse him of deliberately harming his health.

Mtavari Arkhi
Photo: Mtavari Arkhi

According to Yasko, who regularly communicates with the imprisoned politician through his mother and lawyer, Saakashvili feels very ill, and has done for quite some time.

Medical tests indicate serious poisoning – mercury and arsenic have been detected in the former president's body, said Massimo D'Angelo, Saakashvili's U.S. lawyer, referring to the reports of foreign experts and studies. In the absence of a full diagnosis of toxic agents, he may fall into a coma and die, experts say.

In turn, the Georgian authorities accuse the supporters of the former president of speculation about Saakashvili's health and attempting to ensure that he avoids criminal punishment. According to Yasko, this position and actions of the Georgian government in the case of the former president are directly related to the pro-Russian sentiments of the current government.

In recent months, the Georgian authorities have been openly pursuing, if not pro-Russian, then at least anti-Western and anti-U.S. policies, Ardashelia confirms. For example, Kakha Kaladze, the mayor of Tbilisi and a member of the ruling Georgian Dream party, recently said that Georgia does not need the EU candidate status if the bloc blackmails the country with Saakashvili's person. And this position has recently been actively popularized among the population, Ardashelia said.

In addition, the imprisoned ex-president is a personal enemy not only of oligarch Ivanishvili, but also of Vladimir Putin, who promised to "hang him." And, as the fourth president of Georgia, Giorgi Margvelashvili, noted the other day, while Putin has been defeated everywhere else in the world, Saakashvili's case remains the only area where he has won.

As for ordinary Georgians, they have different attitudes towards their former leader. "Saakashvili has a loyal electorate that respects him, or, let's say, even adores him," Ardashelia said, "and there are those who have always hated him. He is a very polarizing politician."

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In addition to these two categories, there is also a middle layer – those who in the past may have condemned Saakashvili as an authoritarian leader, but now recognize his merits in building the Georgian state and see in the trial against him as clearly being political reprisals.

According to Ardashelia, Georgians appreciate Saakashvili for the fact that he "turned a ruined corrupt post-Soviet country into a state with functioning institutions", as well as for a number of reforms, particularly in education and the police.

But they also hate him because during his rule, some personal rights and freedoms were usurped for the sake of state goals, and this was often abused by members of the former president's team. For example, there are cases when entrepreneurs were forced to re-register their business to fictitious persons close to the authorities, Ardashelia told NV.

Now Saakashvili's supporters are demanding that he be able to go abroad for treatment. According to Yasko, Ukraine, whose citizenship the Georgian ex-president has, has repeatedly taken legal and diplomatic measures to provide him with such an opportunity. Among other things, in the spring of 2022, the Ministry of Justice sent a request to Georgia to transfer Saakashvili to Kyiv to serve his sentence in Ukraine. However, the Georgian side ignores all requests, Yasko states.

According to Ardashelia, the main goal of Saakashvili's current imprisonment is to make him physically and mentally incapacitated.

"I do not think that Ivanishvili will kill him in the hospital ward, but Saakashvili will be released for treatment abroad only if his life hangs in the balance," she says.

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