ON 8/8/23 AT 10:46 AM EDT
For over a year, my life has played out between four walls, imprisoned in the country I once led to success as its president. Poisoned, mistreated, and deprived of sunlight, I have spent most of that time a sick man in physical decline. How did this happen?
In 2021, I was enjoying a rewarding post-presidency in Ukraine: a beautiful house, a job with President Zelensky’s administration, with my office right above his.
I was heading his reforms office with tangible results: the anti-oligarchs law, a new construction code, and various anti-corruption reforms. I reported directly to the president and his capable chief of staff, Andriy Yermak.
I was one of the only politicians in history to have a successful political career in two countries, but I owed it all to my success in Georgia.
My reforms as the leader of Georgia from 2004 to 2012 turned my native country from a failed state into a democracy with what I consider to be the best-functioning institutions in the region and arguably the greatest public services in the world. Corruption had become almost non-existent, a remarkable drop from a time when Georgia was one of the world’s most corrupt countries.
In 2008, we fought a war of survival against a Russia set on conquering us, and the Georgian state survived. In 2013, I democratically handed over power to a new government, the first time in the region’s history. It was time to move on.
But I couldn’t help looking back at Georgia. It was obvious that my legacy was being dismantled with staggering speed. Virtually every institution I built was deteriorating; our major development projects were curtailed or stopped altogether.
I believe that Russian-Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who founded the current governing party, was turning the country into his personal fiefdom. What’s worse, he was turning Georgia away from the West and towards Russia’s sphere of influence.
While I had hoped to build a country that could retain and empower its youth, the young were now leaving the country in droves, often forever.
Once I moved to Ukraine, the Georgian authorities shut me out of Georgian politics. They took away my citizenship and hoped their spurious criminal cases against me would deter me from ever returning. I tried to be involved in Georgia’s struggle for freedom remotely, addressing big rallies by videolink, for example.
After two Georgian elections in a row were stolen from the opposition, I could no longer bear to watch my country decline helplessly from a distance.
I was overcome with a desire to reverse Georgia’s backsliding, but also by unbearable nostalgia for my native Georgia. At night, I was tormented with dreams of the apartment I had spent my childhood in.
So as local elections approached in 2021, I decided to put my skin in the game. The government made it clear they would not let me arrive by plane. So I secretly boarded a truck carrying milk products into Georgia.
I knew I would be arrested, but hoped it would happen a day after the elections. However, once news of my arrival got out, I was immediately captured and thrown in prison.
I began a hunger strike on day one. Soon, one of the biggest Georgian rallies in a decade was held in Tbilisi, demanding my release.
I believe the authorities decided to punish me. They tried to transfer me to the hospital wing of Georgia’s most notorious prison, filled with violent organized crime members my government had put there.
I predictably resisted, but guards forcibly dragged me through the corridors as riled-up inmates screamed my name from across the prison, threatening me with death.
Supporters of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili demonstrate in Tbilisi, Georgia, following his arrest in 2021.AZIZ KARIMOV/GETTY IMAGES
For 10 days, I stayed in this “hospital”, unable to turn off the TV because then I would hear the targeted screams of intimidation from the other inmates. I became deeply ill. Later, U.S. physicians who were admitted to me under international pressure told me I had been poisoned, which Georgian authorities deny.
Yielding to international pressure, the government eventually transferred me to a civilian hospital, where I have remained for the past year. My health, however, has only declined further.
In the hospital, despite my ill health, I have had some time to think, to reflect about what I learned from my predicament. Before my imprisonment, I was always a person on the move. In my opinion, I was one of the most dynamic and hyper-active politicians in the world—eclipsed perhaps only by Zelensky.
Now, I sit in a small, confined space at all times. For the first 18 months of my imprisonment, I could not even see sunlight. All this, as unfair and maddening as it is, has also affected my outlook on life.
From childhood, I always saw the world on a grand scale. First came the state of the world, national aspirations, the march of history. Personal life always came in last place. I always knew most people see things differently.
To the average person, their main concern might be the loss of a job, a family member’s health, or whether their child is getting good grades in school. To the average person, our grandiose plans don’t really matter as such. Now, I feel they might have a point.
For the first time in my life, in my 50s, I am appreciating the importance of my family. When politics was my entire life, I loved my family but subconsciously saw them as an impediment to greater aspirations.
Now, my main thoughts are often not with the news I see on my TV, but about whether my teenage son is doing well in his summer language course. Since my poisoning, my mother brings food to the hospital everyday. In our quotidian conversations, we have developed the kind of mother-son bond we never had, even when I was little.
Deprived of the comforts and luxuries of my old life, I have come to look forward to the cheap tea I drink from a plastic cup in the hospital room, to the simple home-cooked food my mother brings me, to the sunlight I see through my small barred window in the morning. These lessons I plan to carry with me even once I achieve freedom.
There was a time a year ago, as my health was declining dramatically and death felt imminent, when I regretted coming back to Georgia. I thought to myself that if I survived this ordeal, if I tasted freedom again, I would leave Georgian politics behind for good. I felt my sacrifice had been a miscalculation, a folly.
But even when I tried to turn my back on Georgian politics, Georgian politics kept returning to me. I have come to recognize that even as a prisoner with limited contact with the outside, I have a crucial role to play in Georgia’s future, a role I cannot just walk away from.
Polish Member of European Parliament Radek Sikorski put it very bluntly: “If President Saakashvili dies in custody, so will Georgia’s European perspective.”
I wish it were otherwise, but I am afraid he may be right. Not only would my death mean the loss of an important political figure in Georgia, but it would mark the day the Georgian government fully rejected the Georgian people’s European choice and embraced the Kremlin.
Today, my fight for survival is the same as Ukraine’s fight, the same as Georgia’s fight.
So my greatest ambition now is no longer to build new cities, reform the institutions of a country or to win an election. My goal now is to stay alive.
Because as long as I survive, even in these conditions, I send a message of hope and resilience to those fighting outside these walls to keep Georgia democratic and independent, and to resist Russia’s imperial ambitions here, in Ukraine, and everywhere else.
On television I see the amazing President Zelensky. I see the people of Kyiv, I see the Ukrainian leaders who saved their country and will lead it to victory.
I know that, were I not imprisoned, I would be there, in those television studios, in those meeting rooms, on the front lines of geopolitics, making a difference. That I cannot act is my greatest punishment.
For now, survival is my contribution.
Mikheil Saakashvili is the former president of Georgia and former governor of Odesa, Ukraine.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.