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A nation must think before it acts.
Political crises, tension with Western allies, and a raging pandemic serve as the backdrop in Georgia’s backsliding democracy.
On October 1, 2021, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made a surprise return to Tbilisi after spending eight years in exile. Saakashvili fled Georgia in 2012 after his party lost in the election and he was indicted on charges of abuse of power and misspending of government funds. He started a new political career in Ukraine, first as the governor of Odessa and later as part of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s anti-corruption agency. He was a controversial figure in Georgia, presiding over the war with Russia in August 2008. After a fallout with President Petro Poroshenko in Ukraine, he became a controversial figure there, too, having his Ukrainian citizenship stripped. Saakashvili fled to Poland before returning to Ukraine at Zelensky’s request. But all along, Saakashvili campaigned in Georgian politics as the face of his United National Movement (UNM) Party, promising to defeat Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream (GD) Party and return to Georgia someday. That “someday” came the day before the October 2 municipal elections. Saakashvili was quickly detained by the Georgian government on multiple charges, including one of illegal border crossing.
Now, Saakashvili sits in a Georgian prison hospital on a hunger strike (of nearly 50 days), demanding to be moved to a civilian hospital for treatment as his health deteriorates. His supporters are peacefully protesting in the streets of Tbilisi and have started a #FreeMisha movement. But it’s not the story of Misha himself that should alarm Georgia’s Western allies, it’s the shameless public displays of poor treatment of a prisoner by the Georgian government. The Georgian government released a series of surveillance tapes showing Saakashvili eating porridge in a doctor’s office, packing up his belongings in the prison cell, and being taken to the prison hospital against his will. One of the tapes shows Saakashvili refusing to leave the transfer van and shouting at the staff, being carried into the building by hand, dragged down a hallway, and thrown on the floor of his room, shirtless. To date, no government official has agreed that Saakashvili’s human rights have been violated despite video proof of his poor treatment.
The tapes are starting to cause international outrage as Ukrainian, European, and American leaders have called on the Georgian government to stop violating Saakashvili’s rights, to transfer him to a civilian hospital, and to ensure his trial is conducted fairly. So far, Saakashvili has not been allowed to attend his court trials over security concerns. Tbilisi fears his supporters might riot, try to kidnap him, or cause violence.
In response to ongoing crisis, the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program asked its scholars for their opinions on what’s going on in Georgia.
What is your reaction to the Georgian government’s release of the Saakashvili prison tapes? What do you think the Georgian government should do to resolve the ongoing crisis?
David Kramer: As I recently wrote, the government of Georgia released videos of authorities’ inhumane, degrading, and brutal treatment of imprisoned former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. Let me repeat that: The Georgian government released evidence that it had violated the human rights of that country’s third president. This was an appalling violation of Saakashvili’s dignity. Anyone, let alone the country’s third president, does not deserve such atrocious treatment. The government should ensure him proper medical treatment and then return him to Ukraine. I don’t see any other way out of this crisis.
Luis Navarro: I believe that Bidzina Ivanishvili’s government is engaged in a dangerous game of Russian roulette, and more disturbingly, for the purpose of indulging Ivanishvili’s pleasure at seeing his nemesis, Misha Saakashvili, under his thumb.
It is ironic that Ivanishvili’s party is choosing to use surreptitious video to further its political interests, an inversion of how they came to power (after scandalous prison tapes of the Saakashvili government’s ill-treatment of inmates ultimately lost him the election in 2012). They appear to be attempting to motivate their own base, demoralize their opposition, and, most importantly, please their oligarch sponsor by flouting procedure for treating prisoners, especially those with significant medical challenges, as the Public Ombudsman of Georgia has stated.
The easiest way to resolve this matter would be to accede to the request for Saakashvili’s return by Ukrainian President Zelensky and deport Saakashvili to Ukraine. The government has demonstrated that it has the means to disrupt any effort for Saakashvili’s repeated, and heretofore failed, promise to “return” and have paraded him about as a prisoner. He would remain convicted under their previous questionable absentia convictions, at a minimum for the presidential exercise of pardoning the murderers of Sandro Grigviliani in 2007. If they were so inclined, they could prioritize his trial for illegal border crossing, which is self-evident, and deport him accordingly.
Elene Melikishvili: It was an attempt to “dehumanize” Saakashvili and exploit the worst instincts of people who, for nine years, were preached to hate the UNM. By releasing the footage, they intended to show to the public that anyone can be declared alien. Indeed, the discourse about “nine bloody years” helps to outcast Saakashvili. By creating the perception that this is “done for the sake” of public keeps them in power. This is a trap—an abyss.
My one-word answer will be: resign. Yet, they do not intend to go anytime soon. I want to believe that there are still some avenues that could make dialogue possible and accommodate at least some demands of the opposition. But, what we see now is that the GD behaves like a group of thugs claiming to be armed with “legitimacy” that they no longer possess. By using the footage, they proved that the GD has done nothing to improve rule of law and access to a fair trial. The tapes demonstrated that Georgia is back to square one. Back in 2012, they campaigned for a better Georgia, for human rights and dignity. Yet, what we see with Saakashvili is the very opposite of their election manifesto.
Batu Kutelia: The actions of the Georgian government regarding Mikheil Saakashvili replicate the behavior of Vladimir Putin’s regime. With their lust for political retribution, the GD government is acting as a Russian ally, trying to symbolize the failure of liberal democracy in the so-called “Russian near abroad.”
As many times before Europe (in this case European Court of Human rights), through its interim ruling, it offered a solution by urging Saakashvili to stop his hunger strike and the government to provide adequate medical treatment.
Dato Sikharulidze: The release of the Saakashvili prison tapes that show inhumane and degrading treatment of the third president of Georgia is outrageous behavior and proves one more time that the case against Saakashvili carries all signs of a political vendetta. Throughout this case, there is the need for respect of dignity, safety, and right to fair trial. The release of these tapes leads to further polarization in the Georgian society.
In addition to it, the footage has been picked up by Russian propaganda and widely used as a sign of punishment of the leader once known as a reformer and a person who stood up against Putin’s expansionism. State capture by the billionaire oligarch Ivanishvili, three fatally flawed elections in a row (2018 presidential, 2020 parliamentary, and 2021 local), and the established practice by the ruling party of using polarization of the society and hate speech as political tools have driven Georgia into a deep political crisis. Along with the political crisis, we have economic stagnation as gross domestic product (GDP) per capita remained relatively unchanged 2014-2019 (USD 4,739-4,697) until it deteriorated in 2020 because of the pandemic. On top of it, we see extremely poor handling of the COVID-19 situation, Georgia’s 3.5 million population has over 10,000 lethal cases. The arrest and mistreatment of Saakashvili is further deepening polarization and making the existing political crisis worse.
Getting out of this crisis would require good will, serious political effort, and determination on the government’s part. A first step and quick action should be the transfer of Saakashvili to an appropriate civilian hospital for treatment. He should also be guaranteed the right to fair trial. That would ease political tensions, though as a next step ending the political crisis would require snap general elections that are conducted with a high level of transparency and credibility.
What should Washington and Brussels do to discourage the Georgian government’s authoritarian turn while making sure the Georgian people aren’t punished in the process?
David Kramer: I have been arguing for much of this year for the need for targeted individual sanctions against Bidzina Ivanishvili and Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. The former is the one calling the shots in Georgia and taking the country down the wrong path. The latter is carrying out Ivanishvili’s orders. I am most definitely not calling for sanctions against the country. Instead, it is time for the United States and European Union to make clear that there is a price to be paid for taking Georgia in a corrupt, authoritarian direction.
Luis Navarro: The acknowledgment by Brussels and Washington that Ivanishvili is as much a threat to Georgian democracy as Ihor Kolomoisky has been to Ukraine’s democracy is long overdue. It has been perpetuated by the illusion that such a Potemkin village government, increasingly illiberal and unwilling to honor agreements negotiated by the EU, can be an acceptable EU or NATO member. But in order to address the root of the problem and define the stakes of the 2024 parliamentary elections, thereby giving Georgians the ultimate say in the future of the nation, economic sanctions targeted specifically at Ivanishvili should be the initial part of any effort to course correct. His response, and the actions of his government interlocutors, will demonstrate what further actions should be undertaken.
Elene Melikishvili: They must sanction the one person who is the financial engine behind this downfall of democracy: Ivanishvili. I think the United States and the European Union have the means and capabilities to freeze his assets, and I mean all assets, including his personal and family accounts. They should impose personal sanctions against the leaders of GD and their families, freezing personal bank accounts. That is the only issue they care about: their personal wealth.
Batu Kutelia: The deeply flawed last three elections, state capture by Bidzina Ivanishvili and his proxies in informal rule, and the thuggish behavior of the current government leave a very limited number of leverages internally to change the course of eroding democracy in Georgia. External pressure on the Ivanishvili regime would be effective to halt the state capture that could help to open space for normal political processes. The first step should be targeted personal sanctions on Ivanishvili, Gharibashvili, and some other individual enablers of the state capture. Also, Garibashvili should be disinvited from the Summit of Democracies as a symbolic gesture. Instead, the public defender, the only not captured state institution, should represent the Georgian people at the summit.
Dato Sikharulidze: This authoritarian turn goes against the will of Georgians. Therefore, Washington and Brussels can support Georgian democracy and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic future by holding those responsible by introducing personal sanctions and speaking up in support of Georgian democracy.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.