Will he arrive or not? What does Georgia think about the possible return of ex-president Saakashvili
Ex-president Saakashvili’s return to Georgia
Five days before the local self-government elections, on September 27, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced that he would return to Georgia on October 2, the evening after the elections.
Saakashvili was convicted in absentia in Georgia, and he now faces 6 years in prison which means that according to Georgian law, as soon as he enters the country, he must be arrested and sent to prison.
Saakashvili’s announcement of his arrival in Georgia added drama and intrigue to the already tense pre-election environment.
Georgia will elect local self-governments on October 2 but the opposition calls the elections a referendum that will decide whether early parliamentary elections will take place, ending the nine-year rule of the Georgian Dream party.
In the ticket reservation, which Saakashvili shared, it is indicated that he will be flying from Kyiv on October 2 at 19:20 with his mother. This is the time when the voting process in Georgia will be completed and the results of the exit poll will be announced.
The reservation states that Saakashvili’s plane will land at Tbilisi airport at 23:05.
◤Saakashvili served as president of Georgia for ten years and two terms. In 2013, after his National Movement party lost the elections and ended his second term, 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.
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 citizenship after receiving Ukrainian citizenship.
Several criminal cases have been launched against Saakashvili who is accused of abuse of power, embezzlement of budgetary funds, dispersal of the opposition rally in November 2007, and the persecution of the Imedi TV channel. Saakashvili is also accused of being involved in the beating of deputy Valeri Gelashvili and the murder of Sandro Girgvliani◢
In a statement posted on Facebook, Saakashvili said that he is not afraid of arrest, is ready to go to jail, and is confident that the Georgian people will protect him:
“The fate of Georgia is being decided, the fate of our survival, I cannot be aloof from this. I have a ticket for the evening of October 2 to be with you in Tbilisi and together with you to defend your will to participate in the salvation of Georgia”, he said.
Position of political leaders
The authorities openly state that Saakashvili will be arrested if he comes to Georgia.
Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said that he does not believe in Saakashvili’s return, because he is a “cowardly person” who “has been promising to come for eight years, but never came”.
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According to Garibashvili, Saakashvili’s goal is unrest and the seizure of power:
“His only desire and goal is to return to power, which is an unattainable dream for Saakashvili and his bloodthirsty despotic team. Today the state is strong, so Mikho and his gang should not think that it is 2003 again [when Saakashvili came to power as a result of the Rose Revolution – JAMnews]. Everyone will bear strict responsibility for any provocations within the framework of the law”, Garibashvili said.
Irakli Kobakhidze, Chairman of the Georgian Dream party, believes that Saakashvili’s statement is helping the ruling party mobilize voters.
“He will come and get what he deserves, that is, he will be arrested immediately… If he does not come, this is the second scenario in which no one sees any risks. In both cases, the “National Movement” (Saakashvili’s party) remains a loser …
If the law allowed us not to detain [Saakashvili], it would be even better for us. Imagine Mikhail Saakashvili, an absolute clown, released into the streets. Ultimately, by his actions, he “supports” our electoral chances, because we know that the public is seriously afraid of the return of the “National Movement”, Kobakhidze said.
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Tbilisi Mayor and second-term candidate for the post, Kakha Kaladze, also said that Saakashvili would be met by “relevant services”:
“We are waiting. People will obviously meet him, greet him, and the relevant services will also meet him. If he comes, an appropriate answer will follow … We will be very happy because he will have to answer for the crimes he has committed”, Kaladze said.
Opposition leaders are making moderate statements about Saakashvili’s return.
The opposition has a common position – Saakashvili’s visit to Georgia is his personal decision, and it does not change the opposition’s main plan which implies that Georgian Dream should lose the October 2 elections.
“What Saakashvili does or does not do, will not change anything … The task is to defeat the Ivanishvili regime. Even if he changes his mind, I do not make any predictions”, said the leader of the European Georgia party Giga Bokeria.
Former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who is now in opposition, reacted more radically. According to him, Saakashvili’s place is in prison, and his visit to Georgia is impossible without some sort of a deal with the ruling party.
“If Saakashvili dares to come to Georgia at all, it will, of course, be coordinated with the ‘Dream’. Today “Dream” needed a life preserver to scare people with something. Saakashvili is nobody today, his political reputation is zero, he is a caricature. The only ones for whom it matters is the ruling party, and they nominate it every time they find themselves in a crisis”, Gakharia said.
The opposition speaks of two main versions of the development of events – opposition leaders consider the scenario of his arrest more likely. However, they are also talking about the second scenario – they say, it is possible that the flight will be delayed or Saakashvili will not be allowed into the country.
The presidential pardon and the “backup plan”
Another version concerns the arrest of Saakashvili, and then his pardon by President Salome Zurabishvili.
This version appeared after President Salome Zurabishvili made several statements in recent days that clearly contradict the interests of the Georgian Dream. For example, the president said that the time has come to create a coalition government in Georgia.
In public statements, the Georgian Dream leaders say they see no prospects for a pardon, although the opposition is convinced that the ruling party no longer trusts Salome Zurabishvili and is therefore working on a “backup plan”.
Nika Melia, chairman of the United National Movement, said that, according to a “very reliable” source, “several high-ranking prosecutors in the prosecutor’s office have been instructed to urgently prepare the basis for new criminal cases”. According to Melia, this will only be done if President Zurabishvili pardons Saakashvili.
Political analyst Khatuna Lagazidze believes that Saakashvili’s announcement about his arrival in Georgia has raised expectations of changes among voters, which encourages people to come to polling stations and mobilize as much as possible.
“In addition, one of the main reasons why voters considered it pointless to come to polling stations was the expectation of falsified voting results and a sense of insecurity, and this feeling was significantly shaken by Saakashvili’s statement”, Lagazidze told JAMnews.
At the same time, the expert believes that the possibility of Saakashvili’s return will also help mobilize voters of the Georgian Dream.
“I do not exclude that Giorgi Gakharia will also lose part of the votes, which will return to Georgian Dream – they will consider that the threat is real, and vote for Dream again, it will better cope with this threat”, the expert said.
According to Lagazidze, whether Saakashvili comes or not depends on the development of events – if he sees that his arrival will have consequences, he will come.
“Such a result may be the recognition of the electoral defeat by the ruling party, as it happened in 2012, or the awakening of the public. But if, for example, the Georgian Dream draws a “space” percentage for itself, but people still do not take to the streets to defend their votes, then its refusal to return would be a completely pragmatic step. Politics is accompanied by victims, but they must be pragmatic”, Lagazidze said.
Lagazidze also believes that much depends on the attitude of the people and the West towards Saakashvili:
“If most of the public meets him at the airport, it will affect the scenario. In this case, it will not be easy to arrest him. The second and most important is the position of the West. Going back to 2012, then the most important factor was the Western factor in the peaceful transfer of power. And now this factor will be of decisive importance”, Lagazidze said.
Political scientist Gia Nodia believes that Mikheil Saakashvili’s statement can benefit both the National Movement and the Georgian Dream.
“It is very likely that this will help mobilize the electorate of both parties. But I can’t say which one is bigger”, Nodia told JAMnews.
The expert says that having a ticket does not mean anything yet:
“Both his arrival and non-arrival are very problematic. If he does not come after this, it will be a huge blow to his reputation. If he comes, there is a high probability of his arrest, and I do not think that it is in his interests”, Nodia said.
According to him, the reason why Saakashvili made his statement is the desire to “be in the spotlight”.
Political observer David Zurabishvili believes that the only real result of the excitement over Saakashvili’s arrival will be more active mobilization of voters from the National Movement and the Georgian Dream, deepening the existing polarization, and another threat of crushing the “middle camp” – small parties that are not connected with the ruling party or Saakashvili’s party.
“If he wanted to go to prison, he would have come earlier. There is no doubt that Saakashvili, who is in prison, will not be able to ignite the flame of the revolution. Of course, if his party wins and this government falls, he will come, but he will not go to prison, but to power. But if the “National Movement” does not win and does not overthrow the government, why should he come? To go to jail?”