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Georgia arrests former president upon return from exile

October 1, 2021

Mikheil Saakashvili has been arrested after returning from exile in Ukraine to campaign in critical nationwide municipal elections. The still-popular politician has called on supporters to take to the streets.

Mikheil Saakashvili (c) escorted by Georgian police officers
Former President Saakashvili has called on loyal supporters to challenge the current government by taking to the streets Image: Georgian Interior Ministry Press Service/AP/picture alliance

Mikheil Saakashvili, the exiled former president of the Caucasus country of Georgia, was arrested on Friday, just hours after returning from Ukrainian exile to campaign in important nationwide municipal elections.

"Georgia's third president, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been arrested today and sent to jail," announced Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.

The arrest came just hours after the former leader took to Facebook to announce his return. Saakashvili, who was swept into power during the so-called Rose Revolution in 2003, was president of the country from 2004 until 2013. He said he had returned to Georgia to help "save the country."

Though details of the arrest were not immediately made public, Georgian television broadcast video footage of the smiling former leader being led away in handcuffs by police. 

In his Facebook video, Saakashvili said, "I risked my life and freedom to be back," and called on his loyal supporters to take to the streets to challenge the current government. "Everyone must go to the polls and vote, and on October 3 we must fill the Freedom Square [in Tblisi]. If there are 100,000 people, no one can defeat us." 

Georgia's rights ombudsperson, Nino Lomjaria, has visited Saakashvili in jail. She told journalists that the former leader has gone on a hunger strike.

Elections a vote of confidence for ruling party

News of the arrest prompted Ukraine's Foreign Ministry to summon the Georgian ambassador in Kyiv. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for whom Saakashvili works as an adviser, said he was concerned about the "tone" of statements from Tbilisi.

The elections, which will take place on Saturday, pose a test for the current administration, which has become increasingly unpopular with voters. Mayors and local assemblies will be elected to the country's 64 municipalities in what is largely seen as a vote of confidence for the ruling party.

It's also unclear whether the government will honor a European Union-brokered agreement calling for snap parliamentary election, should the ruling Georgian Dream party fail to secure more than 43% of all proportional votes on Saturday.

Georgian Dream was a signatory to the deal in April. It has since withdrawn in protest over the refusal by Saakashvili's United National Movement (UNM) to sign the deal until just this month. The UNM is the second-largest political force in the country.

Return of a savior?

Saakashvili, who has been constitutionally barred from seeking a third term in office, left Georgia after his party lost the country's 2013 parliamentary election.

Although initially lauded for his efforts to fight corruption in the country, Georgians later withdrew their support in reaction to what they perceived as an authoritarian bent.

In 2018, Saakashvili was convicted in absentia for a number of fraud-related charges and sentenced to six years in jail. He decried the move as politically motivated and has maintained his innocence throughout.

He became a part of the political establishment in Ukraine after fleeing Georgia, first working closely with former President Petro Poroshenko before their relationship soured. 

Saakashvili, who became governor of Odessa, eventually saw his Ukrainian citizenship revoked by Poroshenko, leaving him stateless. When Zelenskyy came to power in Ukraine, Saakashvili's fortunes shifted once again. Currently, he serves as an anti-corruption adviser to the Ukrainian leader.

Mikheil Saakashvili on Conflict Zone

js/msh (AFP, AP)