Saving Saakashvili: Georgia at a Crossroads
The gradual shift of Joe Biden’s Democrat administration to something akin to the WW2-era arsenal of democracy has been slow, but now seems irreversible. This is obviously best demonstrated by US support for Ukraine, which has evolved from the provision of small arms for ‘defensive purposes’ to the supply of artillery and tanks, with a more relaxed attitude towards potential strikes against Russia itself.
But a forceful approach in defending democratic values must not be limited to supplying allies and standing firm against ideological foes: it must also extend to former friends.
Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in Georgia in the Rose Revolution, a bloodless coup which put his country firmly on the Western path. Embarking on the road to NATO membership, Saakashvili ordered the deployment of Georgian troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan in support of the US-led campaigns, while Washington dispatched American troops to Georgia for training purposes.
After losing his seat in power to the then-unknown Bidzina Ivanishvili in 2012 - an oligarch whose $8 billion fortune was amassed in Russia - Saakashvili fled the country to avoid prosecution on what he claimed were politically-motivated charges. Over the following years, he embarked on a bizarre odyssey as a New York-based lecturer, stateless nomad in the Netherlands, and even returned to politics as a Ukrainian citizen, serving as Governor of Odessa.
A video released by Georgia's interior ministry shows Saakashvili (center in white) in handcuffs. (Photo from a video by the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs via Reuters)
This lasted until his relationship with President Petro Poroshenko soured, after which he was barred from Ukraine and stripped of his citizenship, only to quite literally charge across the border from Poland with a gang of followers and be placed under arrest, from which he was released after the newly-elected President Zelensky restored his nationality. Although his political star in Ukraine had waned, he persisted in politics, starting a new party of his own and beginning a relationship with a Member of Parliament half his age, which his Dutch-born Georgia-based wife found out about on Facebook.
From all this, you may gather, former President Saakashvili is something of an eccentric. After all, there are surely few other Columbia lecturers who have organised a revolution, led a country in war against Russia, held high office in two countries, and been threatened by Putin with hanging by the testicles. If nothing else, he must have given Columbia and its students exceptional value for money.
Yet the runaway train that is Saakashvili’s life came to a crashing halt in 2021 when he decided that it was time for him to return to Georgia, even on pain of immediate arrest at the border. He cunningly evaded this by entering the country illegally, only to be quickly apprehended after posting his whereabouts on Facebook.
Although a photo of a grinning Saakashvili being escorted by two police officers went viral, the crowds he imagined storming his cell block to free him never materialised. After he went before the courts for the first time to answer accusations of corruption during his time in power, he was largely forgotten by the outside world, his trials and tribulations easy to dismiss as yet more post-Soviet domestic squabbling.
Mikheil Saakashvili at the United Nations in 2010. (UN Photo)
However, he resurfaced in recent weeks with pictures of his conditions in Georgian captivity. With his hair gone completely to white, his jowls hanging loosely around his chin, and his ribs showing through his emaciated skin, he looks nothing like the upstart politician he once was and very much like the political prisoner he is. Indeed, having personally seen the man shamelessly expose his boulder-belly on the then-intact waterfront of Mariupol in 2021, I can attest to this horrific physical transformation.
Georgia was previously considered a staunch Western ally in the former USSR, but the treatment of its incarcerated former President only lends credence to the increasingly vocal claims that its authorities are secretly in league with the Kremlin. Government figures openly deride the concern expressed by US ambassador Kelly Degnan, and allowed 200,000 Russians through the borders, an influx which has caused prices to skyrocket and led to significant social tensions.
When Saakashvili describes himself as a ‘prisoner of Putin’, then, it is hard to disagree. Of course, he is hardly a paragon of virtue; having spent a few days with the man, I can attest to the fact that his ego makes the Kardashians look modest, and his inability to listen to anything or anyone that goes against his own views make him tiresome company.
Still, when America called he sent his troops to serve with US forces in wars that had nothing to do with Georgia, and whatever else may be said about him, he is an implacable enemy of Putin who deserves better than to be left to rot to death without even the dignity of a proper trial.
Saakashvili visiting a Ukrainian military base in uniform. (From https://twitter.com/SaakashviliM)
US concern over their former ally’s treatment seems a little artificial following last week’s shipment of 140 tons of military supplies, the latest in a long series of defence aid packages. Georgia is not showing many signs that it wants to retain Washington’s friendship, especially not with senior government officials in Tbilisi pledging to cancel the citizenships of the many thousands of Georgians fighting in Ukraine’s army against a country that was once an implacable enemy.
This is only one of a number of painfully obvious attempts of the Georgian authorities to cosy up to Russia, but killing Saakashvili is certainly the most blatant. And they are trying to kill him: a US-based toxicologist analysing the results of testing has claimed that some of his ailments are the direct result of heavy metal poisoning, an accusation in line with the incarcerated former leader’s numerous complaints about his conditions.
But it is the wanton cruelty that boggles the mind the most. Saakashvili has long since exhausted his political capital in both Georgia and Ukraine and represents no electoral or revolutionary threat. Furthermore, staunch American ally and Russian foe that he was, a number of the charges levelled against him would be easy to prove. It is beyond contestation or doubt that he ordered raids against critical TV networks, as well as seizing the property of rivals and distributing it to friends.
The former President shows his physical state during a video court appearance. (Photo from Reuters via BBC)
Still, his unfortunate case presents a chance for an apparently resurgent America to show that its foreign policy can be assertive without being aggressive; in cases like those of the renegade Georgian government, it can hold its big stick without swinging it.
Sanctions against the Georgian authorities would serve as an opening diplomatic salvo, and the suspension of all aid. After all, while it is noble that the US supplies its allies with military equipment, it must not run the risk of once again donating taxpayer-bought assets to another hostile country.
The Caucasus is too strategically important a region to ignore, and recent events have shown with both Russia and Turkey that stability will not be a local theme any time soon. It is time for the US to make a statement, and while Saakashvili will not be given - and may not deserve - his liberty, Washington can at least save the life of a man, and prove his personal boast to me that Joe Biden is his friend and ‘a good guy’.
Cover photo credit: Stepan Franko/EPA