Putin hasn’t forgotten how my fellow Georgians and I fought back against Russia’s invasion in 2008.
By Mikheil Saakashvili. Jan 8, 2023
All my life, I have worked to promote democracy and Western values. I have stood up against Russian aggression. I ask the U.S. and its allies to support the people of Georgia against tyranny, to preserve our progress toward Westernization, and to save my life.
In 2003 I joined brave Georgians during the Rose Revolution to ensure our country’s peaceful transition to democracy. Like Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, I challenged Vladimir Putin when he invaded Georgia in 2008.
During my nine years as president, Georgia moved from being a mafia-dominated territory to a democracy with a dynamic economy. Today I am in the custody of a pro-Russian Georgian government under false and politically motivated charges of improperly pardoning security officials during my presidency and indirectly ordering a fatal attack on a political rival.
Since October 2021, I have been detained in Georgia under abusive and inhuman conditions. I am now in Tbilisi’s Vivamed Prison Clinic under constant surveillance. I have limited contact with my family and was able to pass this article discreetly to my mother. I am being punished for my commitment to democracy and Western values and for my ties with Georgia’s Western allies, including the U.S. If Georgia’s enemies succeed and I die in custody, other leaders in the region should worry about their fates and that of the area.
Under my administration, Georgia was a showcase of Western influence in the post-Soviet region. To make an example of us, Mr. Putin punished Georgia with a surprise invasion in August 2008 in the middle of the night through the Roki tunnel in the Caucasus Mountains. His goal was to depose our democratically elected government.
I was told to leave the country with my family within 24 hours or face imminent death. I stayed and fought back alongside fellow Georgians. The U.S. supported us, and Eastern European leaders flew to Tbilisi to demonstrate solidarity. We stopped Russia on the threshold of our capital.
In 2012 I presided over the first peaceful electoral transfer of power in the Caucasus region. Mr. Putin didn’t hide his meddling in Georgia’s 2012 parliamentary elections, which brought to power the founder of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition, oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia.
During the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, Mr. Putin pledged to punish me and on several occasions drew parallels between me and his onetime domestic rival Alexei Navalny. Throughout those conflicts, I used speeches such as a 2013 address to the United Nations to warn about the threat Mr. Putin posed to Georgia and Ukraine.
After my presidency, I joined President Petro Poroshenko’s administration in Kyiv. (I went to college in Ukraine and speak the language fluently.) I was appointed governor of Ukraine’s Southern Odessa region in 2015, just as Mr. Putin was trying to subvert the area through his agents and separatists. In December that year, I was stripped of my Georgian citizenship by Mr. Ivanishvili’s pro-Russian government.
Late last year, I left Ukraine and returned to Tbilisi. Like most Georgians, I was concerned by the country’s democratic backsliding and drift toward Russian influence. I knew I risked being arrested and imprisoned on politically motivated charges that only authorities in Georgia or Russia consider legitimate. Yet I would have reconsidered returning had I known that I would be tortured and poisoned by Georgian authorities and brought near death.
Mr. Zelensky and other European leaders have appealed to Georgian authorities to allow me to get medical treatment in the West. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe passed resolutions calling for my medical transfer abroad. A team of 11 European doctors working with the nonprofit Empathy in Georgia, which supports victims of torture and human-rights abuses, has said that medical help in Georgia is inadequate to halt my rapid decline. An independent team of five leading U.S. medical experts examined me in the fall of 2022 and said that without emergency treatment outside Georgia, I will die in detention.
All these doctors found that I have suffered potentially lethal heavy-metal poisoning and brain damage at the hands of my captors. A local Georgian court is considering a medical transfer, but the proceedings continue to be delayed with no clear timeline for a ruling. We know the Georgian court’s decision will be politically influenced and pressure from the allies I stood with—the U.S., U.K., and the European Union—will be critical in pushing the Georgian government to endorse the right decision and spare my life. Though the country is drifting toward Russia, these officials fear and depend on the West. If they understand that letting me die will have serious consequences, they will act accordingly.
I have written President Biden, whom I met in the 1990s through my friend Sen. John McCain. In 2012 Mr. Biden, then vice president, called me the “George Washington of Eastern Europe.” Now I can only hope that the U.S. doesn’t allow Mr. Putin the victory of my death and the Russian control of Georgia that we have fought together to prevent.
Mr. Saakashvili served as president of Georgia, 2004-07 and 2008-13.