On October 1, one day before Georgia held local elections, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili stated that the police had arrested former president Mikhail Saakashvili in the Georgian capital city of Tbilisi (Radio Tavisupleba, Civil.ge, October 1). Saakashvili was detained almost immediately upon his return to the country from eight-year exile. Since May 2020, he has headed the executive committee of the Ukrainian National Reforms Council (Agenda.ge, May 8, 2020).
The former Georgian president announced last month that he would return to Georgia for the upcoming October 2 municipal race (see EDM, September 21). But he ultimately traveled secretly in order to prevent the Georgian authorities from arresting him at the border or banning him from entering the country.
On the morning of October 1, Saakashvili wrote on his Facebook page, “Good morning, Georgia. Already from Georgia, eight years later” (Facebook.com/SaakashviliMikheil, October 1). An hour later, he posted two videos filmed in Batumi (on the Black Sea coast of Georgia), in which he urged his compatriots to come out to the polling places on October 2, “to protect the vote” during the counting of the ballots, and, on October 3, “to fill Freedom Square,” where the Rose Revolution began, in November 2003, which brought Saakashvili to power. “I will be with you, and if there are 100,000 of us […] no force can defeat us,” the former Georgian head of state assured (Facebook.com  , October 1).
Nonetheless, Georgian law enforcement tracked Saakashvili down to a Tbilisi apartment owned by one of one of his supporters and took the former president into custody. It is still not officially known how Saakashvili entered Georgia. The Ministry of Interior only emphasizes that he did not cross the border through official checkpoints.
A few minutes ahead of his arrest, Saakashvili again appealed to his supporters via an audio and video recording posted to his Facebook page. “Perhaps now I will be detained in Tbilisi, but you should know that we will fight to the last. We are all gathering, a lot of people go out into the streets, and we are finally winning these elections,” he said in his address (Facebook.com, October 1).
In 2014 and 2015, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream government opened four criminal cases against the former president (and head of the previously ruling United National Movement—UNM) under the articles of the Criminal Code against “Malicious use of official powers,” “Exceeding official powers” and “Waste of public funds.” Saakashvili was sentenced separately to six and three years in prison. The terms of imprisonment in Georgia are not cumulative; so according to the current law, he would need to spend at least six years in a Rustavi prison (RFE/RL, June 29, 2018).
Saakashvili’s return succeeded in mobilizing his supporters: the country’s main opposition party, UNM, won 30.7 percent of the vote in the municipal elections—2.8 percent more than in the 2020 parliamentary elections (27.99 percent) (On.ge, Civil.ge, October 3). Moreover, his political faction achieved great success in Tbilisi and in several large cities of the country (Kutaisi, Rustavi, Batumi, Poti), where the second round of mayoral elections will take place on October 30.
UNM’s leadership contends that the former president risked a return to his homeland to help Georgia free itself from Ivanishvili’s rule. “[Saakhashvili] understood all the risks, but he came to help Georgians build democracy,” Georgian parliamentarian (and former head of the National Police of Ukraine) Khatia Dekanoidze asserted in an October 2 interview with this author.
Placed in solitary confinement in Prison Number 12, in the city of Rustavi, Saakashvili has gone on a hunger strike. He claims that all criminal cases against him are a “political vendetta” on the part of the authorities and, first of all, Ivanishvili (1tv.ge, October 1).
The former president has demanded a meeting with the Ukrainian consul and expressed hope that the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, would protect him from political persecution. (Saakashvili was stripped of his Georgian citizenship years ago, but he has received Ukrainian citizenship.) The head of the Ukrainian state immediately responded to the entreaty: “As President of Ukraine, I am constantly engaged in bringing back Ukrainian citizens through various means that I have within my power. Mikheil Saakashvili is a citizen of Ukraine, so this applies to him as well. All institutions, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our embassies, which work in Georgia, and at the level of the Georgian ambassador to Ukraine, at the level of our Cabinet, at the level of the Prime Minister—we will all be engaged,” Zelenskyy asserted (Interpressnews, October 3).
Additionally, the Georgian opposition hopes for help from the West to free its leader. On October 3, the supranational European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) alliance of political parties stated that Saakashvili “was fully entitled to return to his homeland. Allegations against him made by the ruling party in Georgia are unfounded. The people of Georgia have the full right to choose their leaders themselves. Politicians should be debating issues freely, not through sending letters from prison.” The ECR group also recalled Saakashvili’s track record as a reformer, having put his country on a democratic path, noting that, in 2012, he “allowed a peaceful transfer of power for the very first time in post-Soviet Georgia” (Ecrgroup.eu, October 3). The ECR group called upon the Georgian authorities to drop the charges against Saakashvili and release him from custody immediately. But President Salome Zurabishvili said she would never pardon her jailed predecessor (Civil.ge, October 2).
Prime Minister Gharibashvili left no doubt about the Georgian authorities’ unwillingness to compromise: “I want to tell you with full responsibility that Saakashvili will serve his sentence in full. Today he is sentenced to 6 years. His guilt and sentence have been upheld by the last instance. If any person on the planet comes and asks us, tells us, calls us, no one in power today will release Saakashvili.” Regarding Saakashvili’s demands that he be allowed to immediately return to Ukraine, the head of the Georgian government continued, “It is very unfortunate that we are talking about a man who has been president for 9 years, it is a disaster and it is insulting that he voluntarily gave up his citizenship of our country. If he wants to return to Ukraine after he has fully served his sentence, then, of course, he can return to any country” (Interpressnews, October 3).
The coming weeks will show whether the Georgian authorities can maintain their unbending stance. In reality, many political actors around the world still support Saakashvili and may pressure Tbilisi to release him from jail.