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Home » Georgia’s Eu Ambitions are Clouded by Saakashvili’s Situation

Georgia’s Eu Ambitions are Clouded by Saakashvili’s Situation

by Malkhazi Zalkaliani
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In blue ink, the handwritten scrawl of imprisoned former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili is sometimes difficult to make out.

“If I’d predicted such a swift invasion [of Ukraine], and also my torture and poisoning in prison, I wouldn’t have come back [to Georgia],” he wrote on pieces of paper passed to his lawyer from his Tbilisi hospital room. “I’m afraid of the west’s loss of interest in the war. And I’m afraid of my death in prison — and it’s inevitable if I do stay here — because it would be a major victory for Putin.”

After eight years abroad, including a stint as a regional governor in Ukraine, the pro-western politician returned to his home country in October 2021, hoping that he could galvanise Georgia’s opposition. Instead, he was arrested and sent to prison to serve a six-year term for alleged abuse of office, a sentence that had been pronounced in absentia.

Saakashvili’s deteriorating health while in detention has prompted a public outcry domestically and among western allies, particularly after his legal team produced a toxicology report suggesting he had been poisoned. It is also likely to further strain the west’s relations with the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is nominally pro-European but has ties to Russia and has depicted Saakashvili as a “Nazi” who should never return to power.

A US-educated, pro-democracy leader let down by western allies when Russia invaded his country in 2008, Saakashvili remains popular with parts of the public: an IRI poll taken in March 2022 put support for him at 31 per cent, at the same level as his political nemesis, Georgian Dream founder Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Appearing in court via video link on Wednesday, the former president looked emaciated and unwell. His legal team unsuccessfully sought to defer his sentence in order for him to be able to seek medical treatment abroad.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds images of the former Georgian president
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holds images of the former Georgian president on Wednesday, when he asked the authorities in Tbilisi to reconsider the prison sentence © AFP via Getty Images
On the same day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the Georgian authorities to reconsider his sentence, describing his treatment in custody as “an attempt at a de facto public execution”.

Saakashvili’s plight has also struck a chord with the European parliament, which in December called on the Georgian authorities to allow him to seek medical treatment abroad “on humanitarian grounds and as a means of reducing political polarisation”.

The former president was moved from his prison cell to a clinic in May, where he is currently being held. What began with extreme weight loss following a 39-day hunger strike in response to his arrest has, during the past few months, spiralled into cognitive impairment, muscle atrophy and anaemia.

“There has been a failure to diagnose and fundamentally treat,” said Saakashvili’s American lawyer, Massimo D’Angelo. “When I was in the room with him we learned that he had just had a seizure. There were no checks that followed. No [X-ray] scans . . . They don’t know what’s wrong with him and they don’t know how to treat him.”

His US medical team has produced a toxicology report that found traces of mercury and other heavy metals in his system. “There’s no medical reason for metals to be in his system,” said toxicologist David E. Smith. “It’s my opinion that there was an acute intoxication with the heavy metals producing a seizure.”

The government says Georgian legislation makes no mention of the possibility for convicts to be transferred for foreign medical treatment abroad. The justice ministry said “the question raised over the denial of the right to treatment lacks a legal basis; it’s impossible to limit a right that doesn’t legally exist”. However, Saakashvili’s appeal is based on legal provisions that allow early release from penitentiary due to serious illness.

In the highly polarised Georgian public sphere, ruling party politicians routinely ridicule Saakashvili and downplay his plight.

“It’s really infuriating that there is so much talk about Saakashvili,” Irakli Kobakhidze, chair of the ruling Georgian Dream party said in December, alleging that the Saakashvili regime killed “dozens” of inmates every year, an accusation the former president denies.

Mikheil Saakashvili appears on a video screen
Saakashvili appears on a video link from his hospital clinic during a court hearing in December © Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images
Saakashvili’s situation is likely to further damage Georgia’s reputation in the west. Once ahead of Ukraine and Moldova in what was called an association trio with the EU, Georgia has fallen behind those two countries in its bid to become a member of the bloc.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, EU leaders agreed to grant both Ukraine and Moldova official candidate status, but said that Georgia had to fulfil 12 preconditions before being recognised as a candidate. These included strengthening judicial independence, reducing political polarisation and a commitment to “de-oligarchisation”, a veiled reference to Georgian Dream’s Ivanishivili.

The ruling party in December published footage of Saakashvili in his hospital room allegedly proving that the patient was faking the severity of his illness. The video, released without Saakashvili’s consent, caused a furore, as it showed him ailing and confused.

Georgia’ current president, Salome Zourabichvili, was elected in 2018 as an independent, but endorsed by Georgian Dream. Though initially a political ally of Saakashvili, she fell out with him in 2005 and has repeatedly rejected calls to use her power to pardon him.

Kornely Kakachia, director of the Georgian Institute of Politics think-tank, said the former president’s precarious situation presents a considerable risk for the government. “If things go wrong and Saakashvili’s health deteriorates further, it could change public opinion against the government.”

Source: ft

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