This content was published on Oct 01, 2021 – Jul 19:02,
October 01, 2021 – 19:02
Georgian ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili was arrested Friday upon his return to his country after eight years in exile, amid a political crisis and ahead of local elections scheduled for Saturday, in a key vote for power.
The return and arrest could cause serious tensions between opposition supporters and the ruling “Georgian Dream” party, whose popularity has waned in Georgia, a Caucasus country accustomed to political rifts.
And on Friday morning, the reformist Mikhail Saakashvili, who has been criticized and supported at the same time, announced in a video clip on Facebook that he had returned to his homeland, which he left after his term expired in 2013.
The government had warned him that he would be arrested upon his return, as he was being prosecuted for “abuse of power”, in a case he considers political, in which he was sentenced in absentia in 2018 to six years in prison.
“The third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, has been arrested and imprisoned,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili announced in a press conference on Friday evening.
According to him, Georgian security forces monitored Saakashvili’s movements from Ukraine and “decided on a police operation in a place and time with fewer obstacles to arrest.”
According to the Georgian media, Saakashvili is being held in the Rustavi prison near the capital, Tbilisi.
– Stirring up tension –
The Ministry of Interior released a video clip in which the former president was shown in handcuffs and smiling, as two policemen pulled him out of a car.
In a video posted on Facebook on Friday evening before his arrest, Saakashvili called on supporters of his opposition United National Movement party to mobilize for Sunday’s elections.
“Go to the polling stations and vote, and we will all celebrate our victory,” he said, adding, “He is not afraid of anything.”
Saakashvili, 53, announced in a video clip on his Facebook account in the morning that in the coastal city of Batumi, “I risked my life and my freedom to return.”
Initially, the Ministry of the Interior and the ruling party denied his return.
Mikhail Saakashvili is used to provoking traumatic events. In 2017, he entered Ukraine illegally on foot – where he also ran into legal troubles – surrounded by a crowd of supporters in an unprecedented spectacle.
Saakashvili, who was president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, announced his return to the country at the weekend for local elections that will test the ruling party.
“I urge everyone to vote for the United National Movement,” the main opposition party he founded, Saakashvili said in the video on Friday.
Before his arrest, Saakashvili called on his supporters to gather on Sunday and go to the capital, Tbilisi, “to protect the results of the vote.”
He added, “If this usurping government manages to arrest me before that, this will make us stronger. I will not back down anyway, and I hope you won’t back down either.”
For its part, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili announced in a televised speech that his return to Georgia “increases tensions ahead of Saturday’s elections.”
Ukraine, where Saakashvili heads a body responsible for reforms, expressed “concern” about his fate, according to presidential spokesman Sergey Nikiforov.
– outstanding personality –
Saakashvili is the hero of the 2003 “Rose Revolution” to his supporters that toppled Georgia’s post-communist elites and ushered in important reforms.
But he is also responsible for the defeat in the 2008 war against Russia and his critics denounce his penchant for authoritarianism.
After leaving Georgia in 2013, he resided in the United States for a while before starting a new political life in Ukraine, backed for a time by former President Petro Poroshenko, with whom he subsequently fell out.
Georgia has been in a political crisis since last year, when opposition parties denounced widespread fraud in legislative elections that the ruling party narrowly won.
In May, European Council President Charles Michel negotiated an agreement to end the crisis, but in July the “Georgian Dream” unilaterally withdrew from it, drawing criticism from the European Union and the United States.
On Monday, Saakashvili stressed the need to respect the agreement, describing the local elections to be held on Saturday as a “referendum” against Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of the Georgian dream and the richest man in Georgia.