The next Navalny
Oct 25, 2021
It’s not big news at the moment, but the story of Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president, might be in the headlines more soon. Saakashvili returned to Georgia this month after eight years in exile. He was arrested on October 1, having been convicted of abuse of power in absentia in 2018, and has been on hunger strike ever since. Last week a medical team revealed that he is in extremely poor health, and that his starvation is exacerbating a rare blood condition. He received a blood transfusion on Friday, and his doctor has recommended hospitalisation. Close associates worry he will not survive. There are echoes of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny here.
Saakashvili first swept to power in the bloodless Rose Revolution of 2003. Grassroots protests over disputed parliamentary elections ballooned into regime change, and he was front and centre. He brought a pro-western agenda with him.
Saakashvili served as president from 2004 to 2013, during which time Georgia experienced unprecedented economic growth and a marked reduction in corruption: he famously fired more than 10,000 traffic police officers in 2005. Relations with the EU also hit a high when Georgia joined the Eastern Partnership in 2009.
But Saakashvili’s reform agenda drew the ire of Vladimir Putin. His tenure was marked by the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, which saw Russia occupy Abkhazia and South Ossetia, later recognising both as independent states. The war came just months after Georgia received assurances of eventual Nato membership at a summit in Bucharest.
As early as 2010, Saakashvili was facing accusations from opponents of concentrating power in his own office, and using riot police to crush opposition rallies. The Georgian Dream party, led by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, brought UNM’s reign to an end in 2012, and Saakashvili himself was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. UNM accepted the outcome, marking the country’s first peaceful transfer of power, and Saakashvili left Georgia in 2013. The charges brought against him afterwards were widely viewed as political.
He had been living in Ukraine, where he obtained citizenship, supported the Euromaidan movement, served as governor of Odessa Oblast, and later headed the executive committee of the National Reform Council. His return to Georgia surprised many, and came in the midst of Georgia’s local elections, which will conclude on October 30.
So why come back now? As Saakashvili wrote in a letter to EU leaders, Georgia has been backsliding democratically in recent years. From media crackdowns to voter intimidation and electoral fraud, there is a very real fear among Georgia’s pro-western forces that the country is slipping back into Russia’s orbit. This fear seemed to be confirmed a few weeks ago, when the government declined to apply for the second tranche of a €150m EU macro financial assistance package in order to avoid obligations to reform its judiciary.
We think Saakashvili miscalculated when he decided to return. Though tens of thousands took to the streets to protest his arrest, regime change seems unlikely at present. Saakashvili lacks support from neighbours and European allies because no one dares risk antagonizing Russia. Too many are dependent on Russian gas, and Europe’s energy crisis will get worse before it gets better. Georgia itself is economically dependent on Russia, not only for energy: its exports there more than doubled between 2014 and 2019.
And things are even worse at the EU level.
Keen to distract from the Sofagate scandal, Charles Michel made the bold and foolish decision to mediate between Georgian Dream and the opposition parties last spring. Believing he could score a quick and easy win, Michel convinced Georgian Dream to agree to strategic reforms and a provision setting a mysterious minimum threshold of 43% support in the local elections. Had the party failed to exceed the threshold, it would have triggered a snap election. Except Georgian Dream later withdrew from the agreement, leaving Michel with egg on his face.
Though Saakashvili’s return pushed his party several percentage points higher in the elections, forcing runoffs in some areas, Georgian Dream ultimately took 46% of the vote. Saakashvili has since made a personal entreaty to Michel from prison to ask for help, while a group of former and current European officials signed a letter of support calling for his release last week. The EU remains silent.
This is unfortunate because working to secure Saakashvili’s release would make Michel a hero in Georgia and other Eastern Partnership countries, where the economic benefits of closer ties with the EU have not been keenly felt. It would mean undermining an oligarchic system heavily influenced by Moscow. Ivanishvili is a major shareholder in Gazprom, meaning that Georgian democracy, too, is controlled by Russian gas. It would also send the message that the EU is capable of intervening to uphold its own values and support one of its longstanding champions.
Of course, regular readers of Eurointelligence will know that we do not expect the EU to do the right thing. The energy crisis is more pressing, and the EU cannot count on American support when confronting Russia. Like Navalny, Saakashvili might soon be forgotten. If he survives, that is.