When former Georgian President Miheil Saakashvili crossed the border into his homeland after more than eight years of emigration on a pleasant autumn day, he was guided by an extremely risky but cold-blooded political calculation. In Georgia, the politician could expect at least six years in prison, but other criminal proceedings against him could hold him behind bars for up to ten years. However, the day after his return, municipal elections were held in which, based on an earlier bargain, the poor performance of the current ruling party would automatically have led to early parliamentary elections. Saakashvili’s long-awaited, yet sudden arrival should have mobilized and inspired opposition voters and dealt a severe blow to the ruling party. However, the calculation did not come in: the ruling party won by nearly 47 per cent, and the former president was arrested on the day he arrived. At the same time, the move may be backed by long-term goals, and Saakashvili’s return may completely upset Georgia, which has been in a political crisis for more than a year.
Miheil Saakashvili can be called Georgia’s most successful reformer to date: the president in power from 2004 to 2013 laid the foundations of modern Georgia, breaking with the Soviet legacy.
Extensive economic, political and administrative reforms have come at a price: they have given rise to a number of abuses, sharpened relations with Russia, leading to war in 2008 and the complete exclusion of Georgian exports, and highlighted the President’s personal ambitions. they betrayed autocratic thinking.
Because of all this, Saakashvili’s person is extremely divisive in Georgia: he hates at least as much as he has a fan base. Many see in him the only possible savior of the country, the visionary reformer, while others write all the perceived or real problems of Georgia at his expense.
After the defeat in the 2013 election, Saakashvili left the country, but remained by far the honorary president of the main opposition force he founded, the United National Movement. The former Georgian president, who has since found refuge in Ukraine, has been sentenced in his absence to three and six years in prison for abuse of office, and in 2015 he was also deprived of Georgian citizenship, currently holding a Ukrainian passport. While Saakashvili has held several important Ukrainian positions over the past six years (Odessa Governor under Petro Poroshenko, Volodymyr Zelensky is now head of the Ukrainian Reform Council), he is likely planning his return to Georgia throughout the background.
The politician may have felt that the best opportunity to return home could now be. Georgia has been in a state of ongoing political crisis for more than two years, since in June 2019, a Russian MP, Sergei Gavrilov, replaced the Speaker of the Georgian Parliament and held a meeting of the Interstate Committee in Russian. The popularity of the ruling Georgian Dream Party has since skyrocketed, and protests and protests have become commonplace in the capital, with demonstrators at one point even storming the parliament building.
The political crisis was only exacerbated by last autumn’s parliamentary elections: despite the Georgian Dream winning them by 48 per cent, opposition forces did not recognize the results, citing fraud, and boycotted the work of the new legislature, which became indecisive. There was only oil on fire when the leader of the opposition United National Movement, Nika Melia, who was accused of organizing the aforementioned parliamentary siege, was arrested in February.
Divided Georgia, which is drifting towards European integration but is trying to balance between the West and Russia, has been reconciled with the help of Brussels. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, arrived in Georgia on the last day of February. The Belgian politician succeeded in the impossible: by April, all Georgian political forces had accepted an agreement that would get out of the political crisis.
On this basis, the government has committed to the release of political prisoners and a plan for generous electoral and judicial reforms. However, there was also a part of the deal that promised to be particularly exciting for opposition forces: the Georgian Dream in government promised that if the October 2 municipal elections were worse than 43 per cent, early parliamentary elections would take place.
In hindsight, it no longer matters why the ruling party’s involvement was set at 43 percent, nor does it matter that the Georgian Dream finally backed out of the deal in the summer, in which the paralysis of the opposition also played a role. It was clear that the stakes were high, a bad result would have a far-reaching effect.
This is where Saakashvili, who had been living in voluntary exile for eight years, came into the picture, and his person haunted Georgian politics there all along. The former president may have felt that now was the best time to return to his triumphant day, and with his arrival, the day before the election, he had really blown up the political scene. Behind the strategy, obvious parallels can be found with the leader of the Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny, who, despite his potential arrest, still returned home to Russia in January this year after his recovery in Germany. Navalny is currently serving more than two and a half years in prison, and may be released in October 2023 at the earliest unless additional prison sentences are sewn around his neck.
However, Saakashvili’s decision was presumably based on privacy reasons: in a video released on the day of his return to Georgia, the former president announced his relationship with a 31-year-old Ukrainian MP, Liza Jasko, while the politician has a family and married wife Sandra Roelofs.
It is difficult to say for the time being whether Saakashvili’s move had a tangible political result. In the short term, by no means – the former president is currently facing at least six years in prison, and the political turnaround has failed in Georgia. The ruling party won 46.69 per cent of the vote in the municipal elections, while Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, received 30.7 per cent. However, the government could not win in any of the five Georgian big cities in the first round, so there will be a second round in these at the end of October.
It is conceivable that Saakashvili is looking forward to the long term, in which there may be more logic: the Georgian political crisis has not been resolved or even deepened, and the presence of the former martyred president in Georgia will further reduce support for the ruling party, mobilizing opposition voters. Saakashvili has managed to return to the center of political life and, unlike Navalny, as one of the leaders of the largest opposition force, his political background is also available for further fighting.
— Mikheil Saakashvili (@SaakashviliM) October 1, 2021
In the captured photo, two guards accompany the smiling Saakashvili to prison.
At the same time, it is already clear that the situation is most in Russia’s hands: paralyzed Georgia, which has been in political crisis for years, is completely stuck on the path to European integration, while society is becoming increasingly divided. If there is only a long-term way out of the crisis, the country is not in an enviable position.
(Cover image: Miheil Saakashvili in 2017. Photo: Sergii Kharchenko / NurPhoto / Getty Images)