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Georgia's exiled Saakashvili says he is back in country

October 1, 2021

Mikheil Saakashvili said he returned to Georgia in support of the opposition as local elections get underway this weekend. Irakli Garibashvili, the current Prime Minister, had vowed to arrest Saakashvili if he returned.

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili surrounded by supporters in 2019
Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili was welcomed by his supporters in Ukraine in 2019Image: Imago Images/ZUMA Press/S. Chuzavkov

Mikheil Saakashvili told supporters in a video posted to Facebook on Friday that he has returned to Georgia from Ukraine ahead of municipal elections Saturday.

"I risked my life and freedom to be back," Saakashvili said on Facebook. On Monday, he had announced his planned return to Georgia, stating he intended to fly to Tbilisi on Saturday night.

"I call on everyone to go to the elections and vote for the United National Movement," he said in the video, referring to the main Georgian opposition party he founded.

Authorities deny Saakashvili's claim of return 

Georgia's Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said on Monday that Saakashvili would be "immediately arrested and brought to prison" if he set foot on Georgian soil. 

On Friday, the country's Interior Ministry told independent Formula TV that "Saakashvili did not cross Georgia's state border."

Saakashvili said in his video that he is in Batumi, a city in Western Georgia on the Black Sea coast.

Ruling Georgian Dream party chairman Irakli Kobakhidze also said the video was fake, and that Saakashvili was not in the country. 

Seen as a pro-Western reformer, Saakashvili left Georgia in 2013 when his second term in office ended. In Georgia, Saakashvili is wanted on abuse of office charges, which he asserts are politically motivated.

Western governments have condemned the crackdown on Saakashvili by the ruling Georgian Dream party as a witch hunt. Interpol has turned down multiple requests for his arrest. 

Saakashvili has been working and living in Ukraine for years, previously as the governor of the Odessa region, and currently as the head of a government agency in charge of reforms.

Return ahead of election

Saturday's municipal elections are being seen as a key test for the ruling party, which has recently dropped in popularity.

Georgia was plunged into political turmoil last year after opposition parties said elections won narrowly by the Georgian Dream party were rigged.

"Everyone must go to the polls and vote, and on October 3 we must fill the Freedom Square. If there are 100,000 people, no one can defeat us," said Saakashvili in the video. 

ar/wmr (Reuters, AFP)