Report

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Misha?

Former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s hunger strike is a test case for Georgia’s trembling democracy.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
Georgians rally to demand the liberation of Mikheil Saakashvili.
Georgians rally to demand the liberation of the jailed ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi, Georgia, on Oct. 14. Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images

Georgia, the country, was once the regional poster child for democracy: a rare success story in Eurasia, where many countries are still battling an extended hangover 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, the polarizing former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is credited with spearheading the country’s transformation, is in prison and beginning his second month on hunger strike. 

As Saakashvili’s health deteriorates, a battle of wills has emerged between the notoriously strong-willed former president—widely known as Misha—and the current government led by the Georgian Dream party. As Georgian civil society and the country’s Western allies have increasingly sounded the alarm in recent years about democratic backsliding, the fate of the former president could be the most profound signal yet about where the country is heading. 

International observers characterized municipal elections on Saturday as competitive and well run, but they noted a number of irregularities including “escalation of negative rhetoric, persistent allegations of intimidation and pressure on voters and sharp imbalances in resources, which benefited the ruling party and tilted the playing field,” according to a joint statement by the heads of the European Union mission in Georgia. 

Georgia, the country, was once the regional poster child for democracy: a rare success story in Eurasia, where many countries are still battling an extended hangover 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, the polarizing former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is credited with spearheading the country’s transformation, is in prison and beginning his second month on hunger strike. 

As Saakashvili’s health deteriorates, a battle of wills has emerged between the notoriously strong-willed former president—widely known as Misha—and the current government led by the Georgian Dream party. As Georgian civil society and the country’s Western allies have increasingly sounded the alarm in recent years about democratic backsliding, the fate of the former president could be the most profound signal yet about where the country is heading. 

International observers characterized municipal elections on Saturday as competitive and well run, but they noted a number of irregularities including “escalation of negative rhetoric, persistent allegations of intimidation and pressure on voters and sharp imbalances in resources, which benefited the ruling party and tilted the playing field,” according to a joint statement by the heads of the European Union mission in Georgia. 

The country’s political crisis also poses a challenge for the Biden administration, which has made the struggle for democracy a cornerstone of its foreign policy. While Washington and Georgia’s European allies once had outsized clout in Tbilisi, that has diminished in recent years as the ruling party, founded by the country’s richest person, Bidzina Ivanishvili, has slowly consolidated its grip on power. 

“If they get away with Saakashvili [dying in prison], then they know they can get away with anything,” said Sergi Kapanadze, a professor at Tbilisi’s Ilia State University who served as deputy foreign minister during Saakashvili’s second term. 

After eight years in exile, Saakashvili returned to Georgia at the beginning of October ahead of local elections, allegedly crossing into the country in the back of a Ukrainian dairy truck. The U.S.-educated former president was arrested, having been convicted in absentia in 2018 on charges of abuse of power stemming from his time in office, which he denies. He announced a hunger strike on Oct. 1. 

Saakashvili’s health has rapidly deteriorated, and he is reported to have thalassemia, an inherited blood disorder that puts him at heightened risk. A team of doctors recommended that he be transferred to a fully equipped hospital. The Georgian government has insisted that the prison infirmary is well placed to treat the former president, but the country’s public defender, a human rights ombudsman, begged to differ. “The solution is of course to listen to the ombudsman and the doctors but unfortunately this is not the case here,” said Eka Gigauri, executive director of the Georgian chapter of the nongovernmental organization Transparency International. 

Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said that the authorities were “doing everything” to ensure Saakashvili is treated accordingly, but he added that the former president has a “right to suicide.” 

The embassy of Georgia to the United States said that the medical team’s advice has been taken into consideration. “If the inmates’ health were to further deteriorate, an emergency rescue van and qualified medical personnel are stationed at the penitentiary institution at all times,” the embassy said in a statement. “These measures were taken in the best interests of the inmate and his health to avoid risks of deterioration to the greatest extent possible.”

On Nov. 3, prominent Georgian opposition politician Helen Khoshtaria announced that she would also go on hunger strike until Saakashvili was transferred to a civilian hospital. “I’m not his supporter and have been his critic, but the [Georgian] govt’s treatment of him goes beyond any norm. Unfortunately, we are only left with extreme means of protest,” she said on Twitter

Saakashvili has long been a deeply divisive figure in Georgian politics. Having come to power at the age of just 36 in the wake of a popular uprising in 2003 that ousted the country’s Soviet-era leader, he is widely credited with pulling Georgia back from the brink of failed statehood as he pursued modernization and anti-corruption reforms at a breakneck speed. But his tenure was not without controversy, as he began to exhibit an authoritarian streak, stumbling into a disastrous war with Russia in 2008, cracking down violently on protesters, and shutting down a TV channel critical of his rule.

His party, the United National Movement, was voted out in 2012 in favor of the Georgian Dream. Ivanishvili, despite announcing that he was stepping down as party leader in January, is still widely understood to be the country’s de facto ruler. 

The bitter rivalry between the two men and their parties has defined the Georgian political landscape over the past decade, crushing the nascent democracy’s political discourse. Despite the charges against him, and being stripped of his Georgian citizenship after he got a Ukrainian passport during a brief tenure as governor of the country’s Odessa region, Saakashvili repeatedly vowed to come back to Georgia, effectively reducing every election to a referendum on his return. 

Saakashvili has described the charges against him as politically motivated. While there were widespread concerns about his conduct during his later years in office, the country’s judiciary is widely seen as having been captured by the ruling party, which has pursued a series of cases against the media and opposition politicians. “Even if the third president was involved in particular crimes, with this system it’s impossible to ensure due process,” Gigauri said. 

Georgia’s President Salome Zourabichvili said that all possible measures should be taken “so the deterioration of his health is not used for political speculation or destabilization,” but she ruled out the possibility of a pardon. 

“I think that they would love for him to die, that would be a big problem off their shoulders,” said Kapanadze, the former deputy foreign minister. “What is at stake here at the end of the day is the direction that this government will take.”

Successive Georgian governments set their sights on eventual membership in the EU and NATO, a policy with deep public support in a country where 20 percent of the territory is effectively controlled by Moscow. But in recent years, the Georgian government has taken an increasingly confrontational tack with its Western allies, which are growing exasperated. In a highly unusual move, the Georgian government in 2018 refused to issue a diplomatic agreement to accept a career U.S. diplomat as ambassador over concerns that she would be overly vocal in her critiques of the country’s politics. Earlier this year, the Georgian Dream abandoned an EU-brokered deal intended to resolve a political standoff resulting from elections last year, blaming opposition lawmakers for failing to join the deal. 

“Washington is growing increasingly alarmed about repeated setbacks to Georgia’s democratic future,” the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi said in a statement in July.

Georgia is thought to be on the invite list of U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming Summit for Democracy, according to a preliminary tally obtained by Politico, as the U.S. administration seeks to take a big-tent approach to draw even wavering democracies back into the fold. 

But it may take more than an embrace to bring Georgia back into the democratic tent.

Kapanadze said he feared that the Georgian government may dig in its heels out of concern that any change in its stance will be interpreted as weakness, “unless there is a certain pressure on them from our Western friends, which has not been present.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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