It was 6 p.m. on Thursday when Mikheil Saakashvili, ex-president of Georgia and once darling of the West, collapsed on a linoleum floor in a high-security prison in Tbilisi.
“He was lying there, unconscious, his eyes rolled back,” his lawyer told me today. “I thought that was it. I thought we lost him.
A neurotic, almost hysterical fear of Saakashvili’s death has gripped Georgia and its politics in recent weeks. In the early 2000s, Saakashvili made this tiny Caucasian nation a rare post-Soviet achievement – a beacon of democracy in Russia’s authoritarian backyard and a close Western ally. Today he is in critical condition after a seven week hunger strike. He started the protest to demand a fair trial of the charges against him by the current government – charges he says are aimed at destroying him and Georgia.
As his condition worsened, the Georgian government repeatedly rejected calls to transfer Saakashvili to an appropriate medical facility. He finally surrendered after days of mass protests and pressure from the US State Department, and agreed to transfer him temporarily to a military hospital.
But it is already the biggest crisis Georgia has known since the Russian invasion in 2008, in part to punish it for its reforms and efforts to integrate Georgia into NATO. Many fear his imprisonment and ill-treatment could lead to civil confrontation and push the country back into Russian orbit.
Saakashvili is undoubtedly also responsible for what is happening. Misha, as Georgians call her, is a deeply polarizing figure. He is revered by many for the unprecedented anti-corruption reforms that transformed one of the world’s most corrupt countries into a modern and functioning state; but he is also hated for the populist and authoritarian tendencies he developed in the process. His unpredictable and eccentric behavior has cost him many friends internationally – the reason, perhaps, why the West has shown little interest in the fate of his former golden boy.
Russia, on the other hand, is keenly interested in the current crisis. Ten years ago, Vladimir Putin threatened to hang Saakashvili by the testicles. It seems that the Georgian government is now doing the job for him.
Having covered Saakashvili’s career since the Rose Revolution that brought him to power in 2003, I never believed he would return from his eight-year exile in Ukraine, where he launched an unlikely second political career. Along with the rest of Georgia, I was breathless when on October 1 of this year his famous animated Facebook page lit up with the news that he was suddenly in Batumi, a city on the coast of the black Sea.
Saakashvili had not returned since losing power to Georgian Dream, a party created by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2012. It was Georgia’s first democratic transition, a milestone for a country that has been occupied by the Persians, Turks, Russians and Soviets – and where power has traditionally been transferred only through wars or revolutions.
As Kakha Bendukidze, one of the founding fathers of the modern Georgian state, said in 2012: “Georgia has taken a step forward… but sometimes when you take a step forward, you take a step forward. before. Shortly after the elections, Ivanishvili, who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s, quit public policy but continued to rule in the shadows, changing prime minister so often that even Georgians find it difficult. remember their names. Authoritarian populism softened under Saakashvili’s successor, as did efforts to join NATO and the EU. Economic growth slowed and petty corruption returned.
If Ivanishvili became the Georgian government’s puppeteer, Saakashvili took on the same role for the opposition. From his exile in Ukraine, he has continued to lead his allies at home, fracturing and weakening the opposition in the process. For a decade now, the struggle of these two warring rebels – an ex-president in exile and a billionaire occupying a futuristic hilltop mansion overlooking Tbilisi – has defined Georgian politics. It took a new turn in October, when Saakashvili jumped out of the back of a milk truck and smuggled into the country.
“I risked my life and my freedom to be back,” Saakashvili said in his video speech, although a Georgian government spokesman insisted that Saakashvili’s return to the country was “a false good produced, in fact a deep false “. However, 12 hours later, the government arrested him and threw him in jail.
Saakashvili went on a hunger strike to demand a fair trial, but the government continued to deny him access to a court. As his health deteriorated, the opposition began to organize mass rallies to demand appropriate treatment. The government, meanwhile, simply shrugged its shoulders. Saakashvili had the “right to commit suicide”, according to Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. During his long stay in prison, the government released shocking security camera footage showing the half-naked ex-president being dragged through the prison corridors.
By releasing the humiliating images of Saakashvili, the Georgian government is appealing to its most radical voters, further polarizing the already fractured Georgian society.
There is one winner in this whole mess, and that is Russia. While Western news channels hardly paid attention to the story of Saakashvili’s imprisonment and hunger strike, Russian state-affiliated television cannot get enough of it. On a recent Russian TV show, the studio floor was lit up with images of the Georgian flag and hosts stepped on it, while video footage of the humiliated Saakashvili was shown on giant screens behind them.
Looking at him, I remembered how, in one of my last talks with Saakashvili in 2015, I pressed him on the mistakes of his presidency. He admitted there was a lot: too much power, too much arrogance, too little compromise. He had a lot of regrets. So why not go back? I asked. He had been tried in absentia and sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of power – but if his regrets were real, and if he cared so much, why not serve his sentence?
“Because if I go to jail, they will try to kill me,” he replied. In this ongoing crisis, it seems dangerously close to being right.