From Ukraine to prison: Mikhail Saakashvili returned to Georgia - what next?
Saakashvili in Georgian prison
Opponents of the Georgian government consider ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili a political prisoner. Western politicians and experts also say that the arrest of the former Georgian president is politically motivated. But the authorities say they have no plans to release Saakashvili.
What fate awaits the third president of Georgia and what is the chronology of events since his return to Georgia?
On October 1, a few hours before the important municipal elections in Georgia, Interior Ministry officers carried out a special operation in the suburbs of Tbilisi, as a result of which the third president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, was arrested.
Saakashvili has not been to Georgia for eight years because he was convicted in absentia and was wanted in several criminal cases. However, quite unexpectedly, the day before the elections, on October 1 at 08:00, he uploaded a video to Facebook, which was filmed in Batumi at night and in which he announced his return to Georgia.
The wanted ex-president, who secretly entered the country, was detained the next day, on October 1 in the evening, and on the same day, he was transferred to a prison in the city of Rustavi near Tbilisi. Since his arrest, Saakashvili has gone on a hunger strike.
“Misha is cool!” – a rally near the Rustavi prison
On October 4, a rally in support of Saakashvili was held near the prison in the city of Rustavi, where Saakashvili was detained. The protesters arrived from Tbilisi in a large column.
They demanded the release of Mikhail Saakashvili on the grounds that he is a political prisoner. In addition to the statement in support of Saakashvili, the participants listened to the song “Misha Magaria” (“Misha is cool!”) – the pre-election hit of the 2008 presidential campaign.
“I don’t know if he has a TV there but I’m sure it’s a great honor for him to know that hundreds of thousands of Georgian citizens support him”, Nika Melia, leader of the opposition United National Movement party, told the crowd.
A letter sent from prison by Mikhail Saakashvili was read at the rally.
The party said that such rallies would continue and become even larger.
The path from Ukraine to Georgia
Mikheil Saakashvili made the first statement about his intention to return to Georgia on October 27, five days before the self-government elections.
On Facebook, he posted a reservation for a plane that would land in Tbilisi on the night of October 2.
Saakashvili had repeatedly stated that he would come, however, many of his supporters were skeptical about his statement.
Nevertheless, journalists, just in case, booked tickets for the ex-president’s flight.
However, Saakashvili arrived at a different time and on a different “flight”.
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Little is known about how Saakashvili got into Georgia.
According to the version spread in the media, the convicted president arrived in Georgia via the port of Poti late at night on September 28.
From the port of Chornomorsk (Odesa region of Ukraine) a ferry went to Georgia, which carried trucks with food.
The third president of Georgia was in one of these cars.
According to this version, Elguja Tsomaya was driving the truck. He also provided President Saakashvili with his apartment in the Samgori district of Tbilisi, where he was arrested.
Elguja Tsomaya was also detained. The Tbilisi City Court sentenced him to two months of pre-trial detention. The investigation accuses Tsomaya of concealing the crime, in particular, by granting asylum to the wanted Mikhail Saakashvili.
In the same case, two more people appear – father and son Zurab and Shalva Tsotsoria. According to the investigation, they also helped the third president to come to Georgia.
It is known that Saakashvili arrived in Georgia on September 28, not October 1. According to his comrades, during these few days, he managed to visit several cities of Georgia. Including in Tbilisi – near the main government building.
Saakashvili is now also accused of illegal border crossing.
On the same night, the Interior Ministry published a video of Saakashvili’s arrest. In this video, the ex-president is handcuffed but looks very cheerful.
From “Coward-Kavets” to Samgori special operation
During the day on October 1, Georgian government officials repeatedly stated that Saakashvili’s videos from Batumi were fake, that Saakashvili did not cross the Georgian border, and that he was vacationing at the Truskavets resort in Ukraine.
Mamuka Mdinaradze, the leader of the parliamentary majority, even especially spelled the word “Truskavets” in syllables at a press conference, hinting at the Russian word “coward”. Thus, making it clear that Saakashvili does not have enough courage to return to his homeland.
Deputy from the ruling Georgian Dream party Shalva Papuashvili began the briefing as follows: “Greetings from Buenos Aires.”
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the ruling party, said that he dreams that Saakashvili was in Georgia: “So that the whole society would see what a clown he is”.
The Interior Ministry also categorically denied the ex-president’s entry into Georgia. The department said that they communicated with the Ukrainian side and can say with confidence that Saakashvili did not leave Ukraine.
A couple of hours after these comments, Prime Minister Garibashvili personally held a briefing and informed the public that Mikheil Saakashvili had been arrested.
At the briefing, Garibashvili thanked the Interior Minister for the operation. The prime minister said that they knew from the very beginning that Saakashvili was in Georgia:
“The law enforcement agencies had preliminary information about his departure. Starting from Ukraine, towards Georgia … The time and place were chosen so that the obstacles to arrest were minimal ”.
Garibashvili apologized to his teammates, who found themselves in a rather awkward position when they made statements about Truskavets all day. According to him, such statements were necessary in order not to disrupt the special operation.
In the evening after Saakashvili’s arrest, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili held a briefing and stated that she would never pardon Mikhail Saakashvili, who had already been sentenced to six years in one of the cases against him:
“Many today are asking if the president is going to pardon him, the answer is simple and final – no and never”.
Prime Minister Garibashvili also said that Saakashvili will serve his sentence in full. Moreover, the prime minister openly threatened the prisoner with additional articles, depending on how he behaved:
“Let him behave himself, otherwise we will add more articles to his case”, he said in an interview with Imedi TV.
In the same interview, the prime minister said that on October 3, after the elections, Saakashvili planned to kill several opposition leaders:
“Our special services had information that a dirty provocation was planned. At their peak, they could probably mobilize a maximum of 10,000 people. The police would have to arrest him. Then, as a version, the murders of several opposition leaders were discussed. I told you directly – we have internal information that this was a plan for the final delegitimization of our government”, Garibashvili said.
The arrest of the country’s third president has already caused an international outcry.
A spokesman for the US State Department said the United States was following developments:
“We call on the Georgian authorities to ensure that Mr. Saakashvili is treated with respect for the principles of equality in accordance with Georgian legislation and international human rights obligations”, the State Department told Voice of America.
The European Union called on the Georgian authorities and opposition to exercise restraint and respect the rule of law:
“Fundamental rights and due process must be protected, and transparent and fair judicial decisions must be made in accordance with the principles of the rule of law. All parties are responsible for participating in the de-escalation effort”, said Nabila Masrali, spokesman for EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borel, in a statement.
Former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted that politicized justice is unacceptable for Europe and that all accusations against the former Georgian president must be objectively investigated.
A group of European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in the European Parliament stated that “Mikhail Saakashvili had every right to return to his homeland. The accusations brought against him by the ruling party are unfounded”.
Role of Ukraine
In a letter that Saakashvili sent from prison to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy states that he described himself as Putin’s personal prisoner:
“I am Putin’s personal prisoner and I appreciate your principled position on the protection of all prisoners”, wrote Saakashvili, who is now a citizen of Ukraine and until recently worked as an advisor to Zelensky’s team.
After the arrest of Saakashvili, a number of statements were made in Ukraine.
The next day, Zelenskiy announced that he plans to return Mikhail Saakashvili to Ukraine.
As Zelensky said in a video message, he will do everything in his power and at the same time all relevant institutions will be involved in this process.
However, Georgia states that Mikhail Saakashvili will not be extradited to Ukraine. There is no leverage to demand Saakashvili’s extradition, Georgian Dream spokesman Shalva Papuashvili said:
“Saakashvili was convicted by a Georgian court and will be sentenced to imprisonment in Georgia”.
Saakashvili’s extradition to Ukraine is “legal nonsense”, said Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Culture Teya Tsulukiani:
“Extradition to Ukraine occurs only when the wanted person is wanted in that country. I do not think that Saakashvili will be persecuted in Ukraine”.
Saakashvili cannot take the relations between the two countries hostage, said Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani:
“I am sure that appropriate explanations will be made on all issues, and at the same time our relations with Ukraine will continue to develop”.
What are Saakashvili and his supporters going to do
Mikheil Saakashvili has declared a hunger strike and is not going to end it.
He published several letters in which he writes that he refuses to receive medical assistance and is ready to fight to the end.
In every letter that Saakashvili sends out of prison, he urges his teammates and supporters to “fight to the end” in the second round of elections:
“I will not end the hunger strike under any circumstances until I and the people detained because of me are released. I love life very much, but it will be a hunger strike for the rest of my life. If I can no longer help my people, I am ready to prove with my self-sacrifice that it is worth living and dying for Georgia”, Saakashvili wrote in a letter sent from prison.
Several Saakashvili party’s comrades have already visited him in prison.
Saakashvili is pleased with the election results and the appointments of the second rounds, MP Eka Kherkheulidze said:
“He asked Nika Melia to bring this achievement to his final victory”.
Levan Khabeishvili, a member of the United National Movement, announced a large-scale rally for the release of Saakashvili.
“We need to start preparing for a big rally, the whole of Georgia must get on its feet”.
Saakashvili served as president of Georgia for ten years and two terms. In 2013, after his National Movement party lost the elections and the second term of his rule ended, Saakashvili left the country and has not returned to his homeland since.
All these years he lived in Europe and the United States, then settled in Ukraine, where he was first a member of the team of ex-President Poroshenko and the governor of Odesa, and then joined the opposition Poroshenko.
In recent years, he has chaired the reform committee under President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Saakashvili is currently not a citizen of Georgia – he automatically lost his Georgian citizenship after receiving the Ukrainian one.
Several criminal cases have been initiated against Saakashvili who is accused of abuse of power, embezzlement of budgetary funds, dispersal of the opposition rally in November 2007, and the defeat of the Imedi TV channel. Saakashvili is also involved in the beating of deputy Valery Gelashvili and the murder of Sandro Girgvliani.
Saakashvili has already been convicted on two counts. In one case, he faces six years in prison. The Georgian authorities have repeatedly stated that the wanted ex-president will be arrested as soon as he returns home.