On September 6, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who now heads the Executive Committee of the National Council of Reforms in Ukraine, announced that he will come back to Georgia for the upcoming October 2 municipal race. According to all polls, Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party will be the most formidable opponent of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s ruling Georgian Dream (GD).
The third president of Georgia and honorary chair of UNM made it clear in his statement that the main reason for his return to his homeland was the withdrawal of the ruling party from the “Charles Michel Agreement.” This inter-factional accord, formalized with the intercession of the president of the European Council (for whom the agreement is named), on April 19, 2021, obligates the authorities to call early parliamentary elections if GD does not gain more than 43 percent of the vote in this year’s municipal elections (Formula News, September 6; Kommersant, April 20).
GD explained its decision to disavow the Charles Michel Agreement by highlighting the fact that UNM declined to sign this document in April. The main opposition party was expressing its dissatisfaction with the authorities’ amnesty for police officers who used force during protests in Tbilisi on June 19, 2019, which came to be known as “Gavrilov’s Night” (OC Media, June 20, 2020; and RFE/RL, June 21, 2019).
“By the unilateral withdrawal from the [European Union]–mediated April 19 agreement, Georgian Dream declared its rejection of Georgia’s European way,” Saakashvili stated. He further argued, “On October 2, there indeed will be a referendum on the people’s strategic choice. Now is the time for every single one of us to become involved in the process and not to allow Ivanishvili to repeat the same trick again with false promises and electoral manipulations. I will personally go to Georgia for these elections. The details and route of my return will be announced and known publicly in advance,” the former president underlined (Formula News, September 6).
Mikheil Saakashvili said he would not seek “revenge” against anybody in GD and proclaimed that he is not afraid of being arrested, as all criminal charges against him are politically motivated and not recognized by any country in the world. Previously, the UNM founder was sentenced to 3–6 years in prison for abuse of power carried out during his presidency (Svoboda.org, February 24).
In his statement, Saakashvili did not specify whether he will arrive in Georgia before or after voting day, on October 2. Gocha Mirtskhulava, who heads the Georgian Academy of Social and Political Sciences (GASPS), said, in a September 14 interview with this author, that the former president could be considering both options: “Elections are not only voting day. The election campaign is also part of the process, as are the second rounds in single-mandate constituencies, the process of counting votes, the litigation of opposition claims in the courts, and so on. Therefore, when Saakashvili promised to return ‘during the elections,’ he could mean October 1 or October 8 or any day throughout the lengthy election process.” Mirtskhulava is confident that Saakashvili’s decision will depend on the specific election situation. “If hundreds of thousands of opposition supporters take to the streets of Georgian cities, protesting against the falsification of the voting results by the authorities, Saakashvili may fly to Tbilisi from Kyiv. Then, the authorities will try to arrest him. But against the background of active protests on the streets, this will look in the eyes of the West as the arrest of the opposition leader; and GD will soon be forced to release the former president from prison, just as [UNM] chairperson Nikanor Melia was released a few months ago,” the expert noted (Author’s interview, September 14; Silkway, May 10).
David Avalishvili, who works for the news site Nation.ge, explained that everything will depend on the readiness of Georgians to actively protest, as was the case during the 2003 Rose Revolution, in which Mikheil Saakashvili came to power. “But at that time, then-president [Eduard] Shevardnadze practically had no support in the police, whose officers were dissatisfied with meager salaries. Whereas now, the government of Irakli Garibashvili holds the effective instruments of power. In addition, all the events of recent years show that Georgians are tired of politics after many tragedies and, especially, the 2008 war with Russia,” Avalishvili stipulated (Author’s interview, September 14).
GD leaders do not believe that Saakashvili will really return before or after October 2. Saakashvili, who is a citizen of Ukraine but was stripped of his Georgian citizenship in 2015, has made such vows to come back many times over the last nine years, they claim. GD chairperson Irakli Kobakhidze has claimed that Saakashvili’s pledge to return, “which, of course, is not serious,” has boosted GD’s rating by at least 7 percent. GD officials also say Saakashvili will be arrested as soon as he enters the country (Netgazeti.ge, September 6).
Former parliamentary speaker David Usupashvili, who heads the opposition party Lelo, somewhat concurs. According to him, the situation is being successfully used by the ruling party to “frighten voters with the return of Saakashvili’s United National Movement to power” (Kommersant, September 7). In turn, the leader of the Girchi–More Freedom party, Zurab Zaparidze, believes that that “Saakashvili is playing the lottery” ahead of the elections, “as even promising to come back might influence the electoral process” (Radio Tavisupleba, September 7).
Tako Charkviani, the founder of Law and Justice party, has established the General People’s Movement, which calls for the peaceful return of the third president of Georgia to the country. As Charkviani stated at a briefing on September 10, Saakashvili’s “political persecution” must be stopped and his citizenship must be restored. “Practically, the state has collapsed. We had a state, a puppet, but we do not have a state anymore due to Ivanishvili’s government, which is working for Russia [sic]. We must help the president who developed the Georgian state return to the country peacefully,” Charkviani declared (Ajara TV, September 10). In the end, however, pressure and support from the allies Saakashvili has left in the West may be crucial to making his arrival back in Georgia a conceivable reality.