Ambassador David J. Smith. November 1st, 2021
“Free Saakashvili immediately!”
Former President Mikheil Saakashvili, leader of the 2003 Georgian Rose Revolution and a man who proved the possibility of post-Soviet democracy, is dying in a Georgian prison. He went on a hunger strike on October 2. In addition to the obvious human tragedy, his death may develop into a political crisis on a global scale – the current government of Georgia risks killing a political prisoner in their hands.
While foreign policy hackers and unemployed diplomats may offer different solutions, there is only one way out. Saakashvili should be immediately released from prison and transferred to a high-tech hospital. His Georgian citizenship must be restored immediately. And the holding of national elections, slated for 2024, needs to be overhauled. Only Georgians can decide how to govern their country.
At the moment, Saakashvili’s health is of greatest concern. “I warn you that this is the limit,” said his doctor Ekaterina Mkheidze at a press conference. “Mikhail Saakashvili must be immediately transferred to the clinic.”
US Ambassador Kelly Degnan said: “We are very concerned about Mr. Saakashvili’s well-being … I am delighted to see that there is a multidisciplinary team monitoring his condition and we are also closely monitoring his condition.”
But despite the recommendations of the penitentiary medical council, the government says that if necessary, Saakashvili will be transferred to the unusable prison hospital No. 18 in Gldani on the northern outskirts of Tbilisi. As of this writing, the former president languishes in Prison 12 in Rustavi, a city southeast of Tbilisi. “Don’t worry, we will take care of the prisoner Saakashvili,” said Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili, who insists that Saakashvili serve his six-year prison sentence in full.
Leading the peaceful Rose Revolution in November 2003, Saakashvili served as Georgian President for two terms, from 2004 to 2013. In 2012, he admitted that his United National Movement party was defeated in the parliamentary elections, and the leader of the Georgian Dream party, Bidzina Ivanishvili, became prime minister. Under the constitution, he was banned from running for a third term, and there were rumors that Saakashvili would somehow carry out a coup and remain in office. Nothing of the sort happened. Georgian Dream candidate Giorgi Margvelashvili was elected president. It was a democratic, peaceful transfer of power. Saakashvili left Georgia.
Since then, the former president of Georgia has turned his career upside down, living in the Netherlands, Ukraine and the United States. He accepted Ukrainian citizenship in order to become the governor of the Odessa region of Ukraine, which cost him Georgian citizenship.
In 2014, the Georgian Dream government charged Saakashvili with abuse of office and embezzlement of funds. The United States and the European Union have expressed concern about the apparent political nature of the accusations. Interpol denied Tbilisi’s request to put Saakashvili on its watchlist. Ukraine refused to extradite him.
In 2018, the Tbilisi City Court twice tried Saakashvili in absentia and sentenced him to six years in prison for abuse of power. Returning to Georgia would result in immediate conviction and imprisonment.
Saakashvili secretly returned to Georgia on October 1, on the eve of local elections. He was arrested in a matter of hours. The next day, he went on a hunger strike.
To understand Misha, as he is usually called in Georgia, one must remember the “Rose Revolution”. Anyone who was in Georgia before 2003 remembers – rampant corruption, widespread poverty, crumbling buildings, oppression from Russia, power outages and an uncertain future drove people to the grave. Georgia was just another island in the post-Soviet archipelago, a country without hope. The Rose Revolution brought hope.
People renovated their apartments, opened shops and restaurants, tourists appeared, infrastructure gradually rebuilt, the economy flourished, and the streets were patrolled by trusted police officers. Georgia could legally apply for NATO membership. And Misha was the only Western leader who dared to confront Vladimir Putin.
Georgia was a transitional democracy, and as a transitional democracy it had flaws. Saakashvili made mistakes, as did the government he led. But it is important to remember that he led Georgia along a path that no country has gone through all 70 years of Soviet occupation. The Georgian constitution stated that his time as president was up. He accepted it. The Georgian people decided that their party should no longer rule. He accepted it. And this is the basis on which it should be judged.
If there were anything to investigate and initiate a criminal case, then this should be done directly and in strict accordance with the laws. In democratic countries, former presidents are not imprisoned.
It is not surprising that Saakashvili’s supporters and opponents took to the streets of Tbilisi and other cities of Georgia. This is a political mess that cannot be eliminated by artificial solutions, especially those invented outside Georgia. There is only one way out – to free Saakashvili and let the Georgians decide what to do next for their country, right at the ballot box.
- Ambassador David J. Smith was a member of the US International Security Advisory Council for Georgia and an advisor to the Georgian National Security Council and the Georgian Ministry of Defense.