The Saakashvili saga exemplifies how easily one can stray from democratic promise to semi-authoritarian rabble rousing.
Georgia has arrested former President Mikheil Saakashvili after his return to the country following eight years in exile, as the ex-leader sought to mobilise supporters ahead of national municipal elections seen as critical to the country’s political makeup.
Local media showed a video of smiling Saakashvili being escorted into the Rustavi penitentiary institution on Friday evening.
“I want to inform the public that the third president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, is arrested. He was transferred to a penitentiary institution,” Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili told a news conference on Friday.
The announcement came about 18 hours after Saakashvili, who was convicted in absentia and has lived in Ukraine in recent years, posted on Facebook that he had returned to the country. Georgian officials earlier in the day had denied he was in Georgia.
In the posts, Saakashvili called Saturday’s elections “crucial” for Georgia and had called for a rally in Tbilisi on Sunday, promising to join it.
Saakashvili was convicted in absentia on abuse of office charges in 2018 and sentenced to six years in prison. He denies any wrongdoing and says the case is politically motivated.
President Salome Zourabichvili said she would not pardon Saakashvili, the TASS news agency reported on Friday.
Al Jazeera’s Robin Forestier-Walker, reporting from the Georgian capital Tbilisi, said Saakashvili’s return to Georgia was “momentous” and something the former leader had talked about for many years.
“Now it seems he has put all his cards on the table and he’s hoping that somehow this return will have an impact on Georgian politics – which is very fractious at the moment,” he said.
Forestier-Walker said Georgian politics had become increasingly polarised and bitter, and centred around political personalities rather than issues.
“The real issues that are facing this country – a stricken economy, and terrible COVID infection rates – these sorts of things have been underplayed. We have now this mercurial figure from the past re-emerging on the scene trying to shake things up.”
Forestier-Walker said the big issue now is whether his return on the eve of these municipal elections is going to have an effect on the result.
“Because these elections are being seen as very important. They are municipal mayoral elections, but they are being seen by the opposition as a referendum on this government. And if the government fails to get enough support, it could be forced into calling early snap elections.”
Prior to his arrest, Saakashvili lived in Ukraine where he headed a government agency steering reforms.
The development is expected to prompt a diplomatic incident with Ukraine as Saakashvili holds only the Ukrainian citizenship that was granted in 2015 before he briefly served as the governor of Odessa. His Georgian citizenship was revoked in 2015 due to the country’s law against dual citizenship at that time.
Ukraine’s foreign ministry said it had summoned the Georgian ambassador after his detention.
Saakashvili – who swept to power in 2004 following a peaceful uprising – still commands a fiercely loyal following in the Caucasus country.
On Friday morning, he said in video messages on Facebook that he had returned to Georgia and was in the western city of Batumi.
He called on his supporters to vote for United National Movement or for any small party that opposes the governing 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 posted in the video.
“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.
The authorities claimed the video was fake, denying his presence in Georgia, which they later explained by saying it was necessary for the arrest operation.
Garibashvili said Georgia’s law enforcement agencies had tracked Saakashvili’s movements from Ukraine to Georgia and “chosen a time and place for the police operation that would create minimal obstacles for the arrest”.
Critics have accused the governing Georgian Dream party of using criminal prosecutions to punish political opponents and journalists.
Interpol turned down requests from Tbilisi to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.