The Republic of Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili made a surprise announcement earlier this week, confirming that he had returned to Georgia after eight years in exile – during which time he mostly lived in Ukraine, and was still politically active, even rising to prominence in Ukrainian politics.
On Friday the government of Georgia issued the “shock” announcement that authorities have arrested Saakashvili, though perhaps entirely expected given the ex-president’s 2018 conviction in absentia stemming from accusations of abuse of office. “I want to inform the public that the third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, is arrested. He was transferred to a penitentiary institution,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili informed a news conference Friday.
In the prior conviction he had been handed a six year prison term, and recently had been warned that his return to his home country would result in arrest. Interestingly he said at the time the attempt to arrest him was orchestrated by Putin and pro-Russian actors.
Often described as a “flamboyant pro-Western reformer” who ended his second term as president in 2013, he oversaw the disastrous August 2008 Russo-Georgia War, which many observers still blame on his series of blunders and initiating border aggressions while under the illusion that powerful Western allies like the US would back him. During his Ukraine exile, he had actually briefly served as governor of Odessa, before his dual citizenship was revoked, which officials said he wasn’t supposed to have been issued in the first place.
But his homecoming appears to have been calculated precisely to stir up mass opposition rallying and anger just ahead of national municipal elections targeting the ruling Georgian Dream Party, which Saakashvili has denounced as a “usurper government”.
According to AFP, his very arrest is likely to stir things up, potentially leading to clashes in the streets among political rivals:
In a video posted on social media on Friday evening, Saakashvili said he was in Tbilisi and believed he was about to be detained, calling on supporters of his United National Movement to mobilize for Saturday’s elections.
“Go to the polls, vote and on (Sunday) we will all together celebrate our victory,” he said. “I am not afraid of anything and you also should not be afraid.”
In an earlier video message, Saakashvili said he was in the western city of Batumi and had risked his “life and freedom” to return to Georgia from Ukraine.
A local media video capturing the moment of his arrest showed a smiling and defiant ex-president as he was led away to the Rustavi penitentiary institution.
One regional expert cited in Al Jazeera aptly described that “Now it seems he has put all his cards on the table and he’s hoping that somehow this return will have an impact on Georgian politics – which is very fractious at the moment.”
Meanwhile Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has indicated she has no plans to issue Saakashvili a pardon. So short of a mass upset change in Georgian politics, he’s likely to be in prison a while for at least the immediate future.