The Saakashvili saga exemplifies how easily one can stray from democratic promise to semi-authoritarian rabble rousing.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president, has told his supporters he was back in the country despite facing the threat of prison and urged them to vote for the opposition at an upcoming municipal election – but the ruling party accused him of faking his return.
Georgia’s interior ministry told the independent Formula TV channel on Friday that “Saakashvili did not cross Georgia’s state border”.
Saakashvili, who has been based in Ukraine, announced plans earlier this week to fly home for Saturday’s local elections in order to help “save the country” and called for post-election street protests.
Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has said Saakashvili will be arrested if he returns.
Saakashvili, who took power in Georgia after a peaceful uprising known as the Rose Revolution in 2003, considers the charges against him, which purport to alleged abuse of power and a cover-up, to be politically motivated.
‘Good morning, Georgia!’
On Friday, he posted a message on social media that read: “Good morning, Georgia! From Georgia eight years later!”
He then posted a video filmed at night from what he said was the Georgian city of Batumi and called on his supporters to vote for his United National Movement party or for any small party that opposes the ruling Georgian Dream party.
“Everyone must go to the polls and vote, and on October 3 we must fill the Freedom Square. If there are 100,000 people, no one can defeat us,” he said.
“You see – I risked everything – my life, freedom, everything, in order to come here. I want only one thing from you – go to the polls,” he said.
Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of Georgian Dream, accused Saakashvili of faking the video and said he was not in the country.
“As for Saakashvili: 1. Saakashvili is not in Georgia; 2. This person is a ‘clown’, we told you that yesterday, the day before yesterday, and it was confirmed by him; 3. I wish he was in Georgia, in this case, the whole society would see what kind of ‘clown’ Mikheil Saakashvili is and that would end the ugliness that exists in Georgian politics, including in terms of polarisation,” he said.
“Mikheil Saakashvili is not in Batumi, Mikheil Saakashvili ‘s video is not recorded in Georgia, this is what I can tell you boldly”, Kobakhidze added.
A key test
Tensions between Georgian Dream and the opposition have escalated since a parliamentary election last year which government opponents alleged was rigged.
International observers said at the time the election had been competitive and that fundamental freedoms had generally been respected.
Saturday’s municipal election is seen as a key test for the increasingly unpopular ruling party.