Georgia risks compromising its relation with the West and returning to Russia's orbit if ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili dies in prison

Georgia's former President Mikhail Saakashvili appears via video link from the hospital during a hearing for his release on health grounds, in Tbilisi city court, Georgia, 22 December 2022.
© EPA-EFE/ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE   |   Georgia's former President Mikhail Saakashvili appears via video link from the hospital during a hearing for his release on health grounds, in Tbilisi city court, Georgia, 22 December 2022.

Over the past year, the health of the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who is serving a six-year prison sentence, has been a major topic of political debate both inside and outside of Georgia. The opposition and Saakashvili's lawyers say he should be transferred to a European clinic to be treated for mental illness, personality deterioration and severe depression. The government claims that the former president is faking it. Finally, signals are coming from Brussels that if Mikheil Saakashvili dies in detention, Georgia's European future could be jeopardized.

Was Saakashvili poisoned in prison? The former Georgian president is seriously ill and suspected of dementia

After eight years in Ukraine, the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, returned to his country on October 1, 2021, a day before local elections. Saakashvili said at the time that he came to “save Georgia”. In the country, however, not only his supporters, but also several criminal cases were waiting for him.  In two of them he had been sentenced in absentia to six years in prison, so the police detained him shortly after he arrived in the country.

Saakashvili claims that all the charges against him are politically motivated and that he is “Putin's personal prisoner”. After being arrested, he started a hunger strike, which he agreed to end only after 50 days. Last February, Saakashvili went on hunger strike for the second time, for 20 days. At that time, he requested appropriate medical care. Due to the deterioration of his health, in March Saakashvili was transferred to a military hospital in Gori, and in May, to the “Vivamedi” clinic in Tbilisi. Since then, the former president has not appeared in public.

During this time, Saakashvili has lost 42 kilograms, and received about twenty different diagnoses of neuropsychiatric, gastroenterological, locomotor and vision disorders. Saakashvili also claims that there were attempts to poison him in prison.

In late November, independent experts came to the conclusion that the ex-president of Georgia suffers, with a high degree of probability, of intoxication, which would be the reason for the deterioration of his health.

More specifically, Mariam Djishkariani, the head of the “Empathy” non-governmental organization, who conducted the examination, told reporters that, based on a 188-page expertise and after studying approximately three thousand pages of documents, as well as based on the results of the analysis of a sample of Saakashvili's hair received from the United States, experts concluded that the deterioration of his health was caused, with a high degree of probability, by intoxication. In addition, according to Djishkariani, elements such as bismuth, barium and mercury were found in Saakashvili's hair sample.

On December 1, Saakashvili's lawyers submitted a petition to the Tbilisi Court, asking for exemption from the execution of the sentence or its postponement, considering the deterioration of his health.

“Based on the findings of the expertise and the evidence we presented in court, I think it is inconceivable that the court will reject our petition. This would be a death sentence handed down absolutely illegally and without any evidence”, Saakashvili's lawyer, Shalva Haceapuridze, told the Georgian television channel “Mtavari”.

The main argument of the defense regarding the health of the former president of Georgia is the diagnosis given to Saakashvili by the American psychiatrist David Goldsmith. The specialist is sure that the politician suffers from “atypical dementia” (deterioration of personality). The lawyers claim that this is obvious from the deviant behavior of the patient in the hospital lounge, also visible in the images published by the Ministry of Justice at the end of December.

The “dementia” diagnosis was confirmed at the last hearing on January 11 by American neurologist Shaheen Lakhan, who, like Mr. Goldsmith, was employed by the defense and the family of Mikheil Saakashvili. The danger of sudden death remains real until Saakashvili receives adequate treatment, Lakhan said.

The court action by Saakashvili's team allowed the public to finally see him, after a long absence, on December 22, when the former president had a video court appearance. Many of those present were shocked by how the 55-year-old politician looked: emaciated, visibly ill and hardly recognizable.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili's mother, Ghiuli Alasania, has urged the public to refrain from political speculation. After another visit to Saakashvili in the clinic, she said she did not hold the Georgian authorities responsible for the possible poisoning. “If there was an attempt at lethal poisoning, it bears the mark and has the style of the foreign power, which, as you know, considers my son an enemy”, Alasania said.

Officials in Tbilisi are claiming Saakashvili is faking his ilness and are rejecting calls to release him

Inside Georgia, Saakashvili's condition is frequently the subject of political debate between the opposition and the ruling party. While Saakashvili's supporters say his life is threatened, representatives of the Georgian Dream accuse them of speculating about the former president's diagnoses.

Members of the ruling party have said, among other things, that they don’t trust the expertise presented in court. According to them, Saakashvili's supporters are engaged in a media campaign and have so far failed to present a diagnosis on the basis of which they could demand his release.

“We are being asked to make a political decision and release Saakashvili, and thus cause unrest in the country. Of course, we cannot make such a decision”, said party president Irakli Kobahidze.

He also accused the “Empathy” Center of being associated with Saakashili's United National Movement party, adding that its credibility was “zero”. On the other hand, the Center has categorically denied these accusations and any connection with Saakashvili's party.

The Speaker of Parliament, Shalva Papuašvili, has stated in turn that, in fact, it is in the interest of the state to take care of Saakashvili's health because “he has another five years left in prison”.  At the same time, friends of the former president would be interested in the politician becoming disabled - then he could be released from prison. The Speaker of Parliament called Saakashvili's supporters “his biggest enemies”. Apparently, because of this, the Speaker has temporarily suspended the right of the members of parliament to visit the place of detention of the convict without a special permission.

The Minister of Justice, Rati Bregvadze, has repeatedly said that he does not consider it necessary to transfer Saakashvili abroad. In his opinion, even if the politician is seriously ill, he “can be cured in Georgia”.

The hostility of the representatives of the Georgian Dream towards Saakashvili is a constant of political life in Georgia. Even during the years when the former president was absent from the country, the representatives of power constantly accused him of seeking to destabilize the country. The United National Movement, founded by Saakashvili, has remained the main opposition force in Georgia all these years.

The President of Georgia, Salome Zurabishvili, has not yet adopted a clear position regarding the former president. Speaking at an extraordinary briefing on December 28, Zurabishvili said she would announce her position on pardoning Mikheil Saakashvili when the right time came.

However, over the past few weeks, the Georgian Dream has repeatedly warned the president that, if she pardons Saakashvili, this decision will have “serious consequences” for her career.

Fears of a potential pardon for Saakashvili arose within the ruling party after Zurabishvili's comments, in which she urged the Georgian court to make a “dignified decision” in the case regarding the suspension of Saakashvili's sentence and thereby “demonstrate that the court is independent”, despite the fact that earlier Zurabishvili had stated that she would not pardon Saakashvili even if it were possible.

Georgia may jeopardize its relations with the West and its European future if Saakashvili dies in prison

In the West, it has been openly stated that if the former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili dies in detention, the European Parliament will not approve Georgia's application to join the European Union. This position was adopted, among others, by Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, member of the largest group in the EP – the European People's Party.

“Parallels between the Saakashvili case and Georgia’s EU accession prospects are fundamentally imperative! Both are inseparable! The European Parliament will never vote in favor of Georgian membership in the EU if the former president remains detained and dies in prison” Jacek Saryusz-Wolski wrote on Twitter.

Georgia submitted its application for EU membership two days after Ukraine and on the same day as the Republic of Moldova, on March 3. In June, the European Commission temporarily refused to grant Georgia the candidate status, stating that Georgia would receive this status only after meeting certain conditions.

The US Helsinki Commission took a stand on the former president's fate as well. The human rights organization said in a statement:

“Former Georgian president Saakashvili is a divisive figure, but like any other prisoner – and particularly as a former president and political leader - he should be treated with dignity and respect. The Georgian Dream government is ultimately responsible for his welfare”, the organization's Twitter post said.

On January 13, the Polish Seimas adopted a resolution regarding the health of Georgia's third president, Mikheil Saakashvili. 438 deputies voted for, 8 against, and 1 abstained, reports. The authors of the document urged the Georgian authorities to provide the former president with the necessary treatment, given his deteriorating health. The resolution also calls on the international community and friends of Georgia to show solidarity and perseverance in saving Saakashvili's life and health.

In an interview with the Georgian Service of Voice of America, the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul,  said   that the death of Mikheil Saakashvili in prison would affect the fate of Georgia. He called on the Georgian authorities to ensure the protection of the former president's rights.

“I am 100% sure that if Saakashvili dies in prison, it will be decisive for the fate of Georgia. When asked what Georgia is famous for, they will answer that it is a country where one of the former presidents was imprisoned and he died there. I am concerned about the negative consequences of his death in prison”.

Earlier, Michael McFaul published an op-ed in The Washington Post, calling on world leaders to save Mikheil Saakashvili. The article titled The world can’t allow the ex-president of Georgia to die in detention states that as the world remains rightly focused on Vladimir Putin’s barbaric war in Ukraine, the Russian leader continues to advance his destabilizing, anti-democratic agenda in other places in the world.

Meanwhile, Saakashvili sent a letter to Heritage Foundation CEO William Browder (the author of the “Magnitsky Act”) asking him not to wait for his death to help Georgian activists compile a new Magnitsky list.

“They are killing me in prison just like they did with Magnitsky, only more openly and publicly. My prayer is that you help the local Georgian groups to draw up a new [Magnitsky] list before I die. My condition is getting worse by the day and the vile local oligarchs are only making fun of my deteriorating health. Please help us with all your intellectual capacity, with all your fighting spirit and the many contacts you have”, wrote Mikheil Saakashvili.

Browder replied that he would do everything to get Western governments to pay attention to the Saakashvili case, and impose “Magnitsky”-style sanctions. He later stated that he and Mikheil Saakashvili's team started gathering evidence of his poisoning.

After collecting the evidence, the author of the Magnitsky Act plans to present the evidence to Western governments, including the US government, the EU authorities, the authorities of UK, Canada, Australia, etc.

In turn, the Bellingcat investigative group offered its assistance to Georgian law enforcement agencies in the investigation into the poisoning of the former president.

“I'm sure they [Georgian law enforcement agencies] are interested in this investigation. We are ready to help them if they are willing to give us access to information – about the movements of suspicious persons, border crossing points and anything else they think needs further verification”, Bellingcat chief executive Hristo Grozev told the Dojd TV station.

According to him, the journalists read the report of an American toxicologist who examined the politician's samples, consulted with Russian experts in the field of chemical weapons and came to the conclusion that the hypothesis of Saakashvili being poisoned with heavy metals was the most plausible.

Georgia and the war in Ukraine. Could the government in Tbilisi bring the country back into Moscow's orbit?

The “Saakashvili factor” is one of the reasons why the level of tension in the relations between Kyiv and Tbilisi has increased in recent months. Saakashvili was one of the most vocal supporters of Ukraine when it was first invaded by Russia in the spring of 2014.

In the years that followed, Saakashvili became involved in the political life of Ukraine, and even became the governor of the Odesa region, but he clashed with the former president Petro Poroshenko and was eventually stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship. However, he got it back during the time of Zelensky, when Saakashvili returned to Ukraine. After being imprisoned, Mikheil Saakashvili wrote to Volodymyr Zelensky and in that letter complained that he was “Putin's personal prisoner” and that he had been sent to prison based on evidence and charges that only Russia would admit.

In late December last year, Volodymyr Zelensky asked the Georgian authorities to show mercy to the ex-president of Georgia and transfer him either to a clinic in Ukraine, or any European country, or to America.

“I’m speaking now to all our friends and all the good people of Georgia. You may have all seen the condition in which Mikheil Saakashvili is now, the state of his health. That is why I am calling on the people of Georgia, the authorities of Georgia - we must show mercy, especially during Christmas. What is happening with Mikheil is outrageous. Georgia should not behave like this. This has to stop. Please make a decision that can save his life. Transfer Mikheil Saakashvili to one of the clinics in Ukraine, in another European country, or America. It's time to take this right step”, Zelensky said.

In response, representatives of the ruling party in Georgia reiterated the hypothesis that the Ukrainian authorities were “the authors of the special operation to send Saakashvili to Georgia”.

Such outbursts at Kyiv are not uncommon in Tbilisi, and the relationship between the two countries has become even more complicated after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Georgia, itself a victim of Russian aggression, even while Saakashvili was in power, has voiced its support for Ukraine. On the other hand, Tbilisi has refused to join the economic and financial sanctions campaign against Russia and has taken steps to prevent Georgian volunteers from going to fight alongside the Ukrainian forces.

Moreover, Georgian Dream president Irakli Kobahidze has regularly criticized Ukraine and Ukrainian officials since the war broke out. It is true that Irakli Kobahidze  has also been critical of Russia, but much less often than in the case of Ukraine. The main target of Kobahidze's attacks, however, has been the West. The Georgian Dream leader is not an isolated case: other government members and party officials have also come up with an anti-Western rhetoric. One of their main targets was the US ambassador to Tbilisi, Kelly Dugan.

In fact, the opposition has been accusing the Georgian Dream for years that they would, in fact, seek to bring the country closer to Russia and that, in reality, they are not interested in European integration and a rapprochement with the West. The party's founder, the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, made his fortune in Russia during the time of the big privatizations and has many contacts there. Ivanishvili claims to have retired from politics, but is seen as the country's shadow leader and  a promoter of normal relations with Moscow.

For now, the government in Tbilisi insists it wants the country to carry on along its European path. The relations with Russia, even if they have improved (especially at economic level) compared to the Saakashvili era, remain far from being normal – the two countries have not restored their diplomatic ties, which got severed when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.

However, taking the path of the so-called “western vector”, at least in statements, can also be related to the fact that the majority of Georgians declare themselves pro-European, so a government suddenly changing the country's foreign policy orientation would be strongly contested. Under these conditions, the Saakashvili case and how it will proceed and end can also be seen as an indication of the Georgian Dream’s true options and intentions.

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