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Decoding the ‘Saakashvili effect’ with two experts in Georgian politics

A screenshot from AFP YouTube video channel showing Saakashvili being detained on October 1, 2021,

Georgia is currently experiencing a major and public health and political crisis. Adding to the tensions was controversial and long-exiled politician Mikheil Saakashvili's illegal return to the country on October 1. Saakashvili, who served as Georgia's president from 2004–2013, was immediately arrested on charges of abusing his role in office and is now on hunger strike while awaiting trial. His return inspired major street demonstrations in the capital, Tbilisi. Global Voices talked to two political analysts familiar with contemporary Georgian history to try to decode the narratives at play in a rather volatile situation.

 The pandemic has hit Georgians hard, not only because of high numbers of infections and deaths — mostly due to scarce access to vaccines — but also because the country relies heavily on foreign tourism that has dwindled significantly since spring 2020. Georgia is also facing a significant democratic decline. The past year marred with political crisis culminated in violent clashes in July, when police violently dispersed the country's queer community and its supporters who rallied in support of the Tbilisi Pride march. Several journalists covering the protests were battered, and one reportedly died of injuries sustained as a result of police violence. Most recently, on October 2, the controversial ruling Georgian Dream party secured victory in the local elections. Although the voters will be headed back to the polls on October 30 for reruns across several major cities, the chances of changing the initial election results are slim

The challenging political landscape does not end here. Part of Georgia's northern territory, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, have been under Russian occupation since the 2008 war with Moscow. Under the heavy support from Russia, both have declared de-facto independence.

In this context of instability, former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who left Georgia in 2013, smuggled his way back to the country and is now in prison while starting his third week of hunger strike.

Global Voices talked with Thornike Gordadze, a French-Georgian expert who served as Deputy Foreign Minister for relations with the European Union and as Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration from 2010–2012 under the Saakashvili government. He now works as an independent researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Speaking to Global Voices, Gordadze shed some light on the possible motivations behind Saakashvili's dramatic come-back and what might happen next:

C'est un véritable retour en politique géorgienne, il a voulu prouver qu'il était prêt à s'engager totalement pour ce pays. Il risque beaucoup car personne ne peut garantir sa sécurité en prison: la Géorgie est mal protégée des interventions russes de tout niveau, y compris des services secrets. On ne peut pas exclure qu'il lui arrive quelque chose en prison. Saakachvili veut donc se réhabiliter auprès de l'opinion publique géorgienne car les gens commençaient à douter de son retour qu'il avait annoncé plusieurs fois. A ce titre, il a réussi, comme en témoigne la manifestation du 14 octobre à Tbilissi qui a mobilisé non seulement les membres de son parti, mais aussi des membres d'autres partis d'opposition, qui par ailleurs le critiquent fortement dans leurs discours officiels mais aujourd'hui reconnaissent que le rétablissement de la démocratie en Géorgie passe par sa libération. Saakachvili ne laisse personne indifférent, soit on l'adore, soit on le déteste, mais aujourd'hui il est le seul instrument qui est capable de défier le Rêve Géorgien.

It is real come-back to Georgian politics, he wanted to prove he could be fully engaged for his country. He is taking huge risks because no one can guarantee his security in prison: Georgia is badly protected from Russian interventions of all sorts, including from Russian secret services. We cannot exclude the fact that something could happen to him while in prison. Saakashvili wants to regain his reputation with the Georgian audience because people started to doubt he would ever return, something he had announced several times. In this regard, he has succeeded, as the October 14 demonstration in Tbilisi shows: it gathered his party's members, but also members of other opposition parties that criticize him heavily in their official discourse, but do recognize the fact that democracy can only return to Georgia if he is freed. Saakashvili leaves no one indifferent: he is either beloved or hated, yet today he is the only instrument able to challenge the [ruling] Georgian Dream Party.

Global Voices also spoke to Régis Genté, a French journalist who has been based in Georgia for over 20 years:

Il est bien sûr quasi impossible de faire des pronostics quant à la façon dont Saakachvili pourrait affecter aujourd’hui la politique géorgienne et revenir au pouvoir d’une façon ou d’une autre. Mais il a créé une sorte d’électrochoc: il incarne un rejet du gouvernement « Rêve Géorgien », le parti de l’oligarque Bidzina Ivanichvili. Chaque élection montre que les électeurs géorgiens veulent changer. Lors de la présidentielle de 2018, ils avaient clairement voté contre la candidate soutenue par le « Rêve Géorgien », Salomé Zourabichvili. Elle accusait 10 points de retard sur le candidat du Mouvement National Uni. Il a fallu que M. Ivanichvili promette dans l’entre-deux tours le rachat de 600.000 prêts pour faire basculer le vote. Le scénario le plus réaliste est que la « présence » de M. Saakachvili pèse sur le vote du 30 octobre, le 2nd tour des élections municipales. Cela peut renforcer les chances de l’opposition de remporter nombre de mairies importantes dans le pays.

It is of course almost impossible to predict in which ways Saakashvili can influence Georgian politics, or return to power, one way or the other. But he created an electroshock: he embodies a rejection of the Georgian Dream party of the oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. Each election shows Georgian voters want a change: during the 2018 presidential election, they voted clearly against Salome Zurabishvili, the Georgian Dream candidate, who had a 10 percent lower vote than Saakashvili's National United Movement. Ivanishvili had to promise between the first and second tour of the election to cancel 600,000 loans to change the outcome of the vote. The most realistic scenario is that Saakashvili's presence will weigh on the second tour of the municipal elections on October 30. This could strengthen the opposition and increase its chances to win important cities.

Ivanishvili is a key figure in Georgian politics: a successful millionaire who made part of his fortune in Russia in the 90s, he founded the Georgian Dream party in 2012 and then served as Georgia's Prime Minister in 2012 and 2013. Though he announced that he was leaving politics in early 2021, including stepping down as chairmanship of the Georgian Dream party, he remains a key player. At this point of heightened tension, the party is in a tough spot — any move regarding the fate of Saakashvili seems to be a bad decision, as both experts explain. According to Genté:

Beaucoup en Géorgie disent que le gouvernement est embarrassé par la présence de Saakachvili dans le pays, qu’il préférerait l’extrader en Ukraine ou ailleurs. J’ai l’impression que depuis 2012 Ivanichvili veut garder son meilleur ennemi derrière les barreaux pour très longtemps. Aujourd’hui le soutien à Saakachvili n’est pas négligeable probablement, mais nous n’avons à peu près aucun moyen de le mesurer.

Many say in Georgia that the government is embarrassed by Saakashvili's presence in the country, and would rather extradite him to Ukraine or elsewhere. I have the impression that since 2012, Ivanishvili would rather keep him behind bars for a very long period of time. Today Saakashvili's support should probably not be underestimated, but there is no way to measure it.

Gordadze explains that the issue is also an international headache for the ruling party:

Saakachvili, mort ou vivant représente un danger: les autorités ne peuvent pas le relâcher car elles ont bâti leur légitimité sur une idéologie anti-Saakachvili et risqueraient de perdre le soutien de leurs électeurs dont certains sont lui farouchement opposés car ils ont perdu leur pouvoir, leur influence, leur business, leur source de corruption sous son gouvernement.

En prison il est aussi un problème interne mais aussi international car il est citoyen ukrainien. Les diplomates le mentionnent dans toutes les rencontres. L'idéal serait de l'expulser vers l'Ukraine mais pas tout de suite; car il a été condamné par contumace pour six ans. Il veut rencontrer ses juges mais on ne lui donne pas ce droit car ce serait sa tribune.

Dead or alive, Saakashvili represents a danger: the authorities cannot release him as they built their legitimacy on an anti-Saakashvili ideology and would lose the support of their voters, some of whom are strongly opposed to him because they lost their power, influence, business, and source of corruption under his government. While in prison, he is an internal but also international issue since he is now a Ukrainian citizen. To expel him would be ideal, but not right away, since he was sentenced in absentia for six years. He wants to meet his judges now but he is not given that opportunity because he would use that as his tribune.

And indeed, Saakashvili is a polarizing issue outside the borders of Georgia: many Russian and Western diplomats blame him for initiating the war with Russia in 2008. Thus his return to Georgian politics also adds tensions to relations between Moscow and Brussels or Washington, as Gordadze points out:

Saakachvili est totalement pro-occidental mais peut-être plus que les Occidentaux eux-mêmes et ceci est un problème: Saakachvili est la personne qui symbolise le conflit russo-géorgien, donc son retour va raviver ce conflit, Moscou ne va pas tolérer une telle personnalité, donc de nombreux diplomates pensent qu'il vaut mieux avoir le Rêve Géorgien au pouvoir car c'est un parti qui négocie avec Moscou et qui ne veut pas faire de vagues. L'Europe ne veut pas se confronter à la Russie, donc le dossier géorgien est gênant.

Saakashvili is totally pro-Western but perhaps even more so than Westerners, and that is a problem: he symbolizes the Russian-Georgian conflict, thus his return will bring back the conflict as Moscow would not tolerate him. Thus many diplomats think it is better to have the Georgian Dream in power, because they negotiate with Moscow and do not want to rock the boat. Europe does not want a confrontation with Russia, hence the Georgian issue is a hindrance.

Genté echoes those views, but adds that for average Georgians, the first concern today might be poverty:

Pour la population, la question me semble d’abord : comment mieux vivre ? Quand l’Allemagne propose au printemps dernier un quota de 5.000 personnes pour des emplois saisonniers, près de 100.000 Géorgiens ont postulé à ces emplois. Cela a beaucoup étonné ici et montré l’état de désespoir des gens face au marché de l’emploi. Cela dit, ce sentiment que le pouvoir ne satisfait par leurs exigences est renforcé par effectivement une série d’évidences que le « Rêve Géorgien » nourrit une relation pour le moins ambiguë avec Moscou. La crise de juin 2019, lorsqu’un député communiste russe s’est assis sur le fauteuil du président du Parlement dans le cadre, a été marquante à cet égard. Les manifestations qui ont ensuivi ont duré des semaines, mobilisant bien au-delà des partis d’opposition.

For Georgians the question is first: how to live better? When Germany offered last spring a quota of 5,000 positions for seasonal jobs, almost 100,000 Georgians applied. This was a surprise and shows the level of desperation of people seeking jobs. This feeling of not being listened to is reinforced by a series of facts showing the Georgian Dream party has a rather ambiguous relationship with Moscow. In June 2019, a Russian deputy from the Communist Party sat in the seat of the president of the Georgian Parliament. Demonstrations that followed this incident lasted for weeks and mobilized not just the opposition parties but average citizens.

As Georgia prepares for its second municipal elections on October 30, and Saakashvili remains on hunger strike, stability seems but an empty dream in a country deeply divided over political and economic lines.

Editorial note: To clarify Gordadze's position on the matter of Russian-Georgian relations, the newsroom added the following clarification: “Thus many diplomats think it is better to have the Georgian Dream in power, because they negotiate with Moscow.” 

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