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Georgia: A democracy on the edge
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Georgia: A democracy on the edge

Thursday 18 November 2021

Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has been on hunger strike now for 48 days, in protest against what he alleges is his politically-motivated arrest. It’s a fight that serves as a proxy for the debate over Georgia’s future and its fragile democracy

“I have always been far from politics and now I address you as a child. A child who sees that his father is in danger.”

So began Eduard Saakashvili’s plea to camera on Monday, with his father – the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili – on hunger strike in prison for 46 days. 

It’s now day 48 and doctors say Saakashvili, Georgia’s president from 2004-2013, can no longer walk. The government has denied his request to be transferred from Gladi prison hospital to a civilian facility, which experts say he needs to safely end his strike. With the deadlock continuing (the current prime minister defiantly said that Saakashvili has “the right to commit suicide”, and is blocking his transfer), the likelihood of Eduard losing his father increases each day. 

The last weeks have seen the largest anti-government demonstrations in a decade, with tens of thousands taking to Tbilisi’s streets to call for Saakashvili’s transfer. On 8 November, Saakashvili was moved to a hospital – but the Glandi prison hospital, not a civilian one, which his partner claims is “the most dangerous place for his life.” Its conditions were described by public defender Nino Lomjaria as a “gross violation of human rights”, with a lack of adequate medical facilities and constant risk of abuse from both guards and inmates (the former, he has claimed, have already repeatedly abused him, on one occasion dragging him across the floor by his hair).

To many in the West, especially within the European Union, the fight for Saakashvili’s transfer amounts to a fight for Georgia’s ailing democracy. To them, Saakashvili is the bombastic reformer – synonymous with the 2003 Rose Revolution – who unambiguously rejected Russian control and whose return to the country from self-exile in Ukraine just before the local elections in October embodied the country’s final chance to integrate with Europe. If he dies in prison, they argue, Georgia’s hopes of continuing his democratising reforms will be lost, perhaps irrevocably.

But this latest game of political brinkmanship is far more complicated. These charges Saakashvili faces aren’t groundless fictions. If tried in an independent court – the charges range from involvement in attacks on an opposition MP, for which he has already been convicted in absentia, to embezzlement and illegally disbanding an opposition protest during his rule – conviction on at least one charge is entirely possible.

“It’s not that there are no grounds for investigation,” Eka Gigauri, Executive Director of Transparency International Georgia, says, “but in some cases there are legal problems there; especially with two cases where investigators had only indirect witnesses”.

Whatever his culpability, his chances of a fair trial in Georgia are vanishingly slim. As an opposition MP said on Monday, he neither has access to a fair, nor unfair, trial: Saakashvili is now barred from appearing in court, the judges citing his poor health as reason. Despite the European Court of Human Rights issuing an urgent interim measure on Tuesday demanding Saakashvili be given proper post-strike medical care, the Georgian justice minister Rati Bregadze insists his needs are already met in Glandi prison hospital, indicating no government concessions will be made.

For Georgians, the brazen partiality of its courts is nothing new. Somewhat ironically, the judicial system has long been considered one of the last untouched pillars of Saakashvili’s reforming era, still considered beholden to a form of “clan rule”. “Saakashvili did introduce special anti-corruption reforms to Georgia,” says Eka Gigauri, Executive Director of Transparency International Georgia, “but he failed to ensure the independence of the judicial system”. Gigauri characterised the country’s judicial system as an “influential clan of judges, those backed by the government involved in the high profile cases”.

Saakashvili’s reforming blindspot is now on show for all to see – including the European Union, which Georgia plans to formally apply to join in 2024. It also includes Russia, where state broadcasters are blithely showing the footage of his treatment with an implicit warning: leaders of small countries who profess loyalty to the West must learn the lesson that, when it really matters, they will not protect you. 

The situation is rapidly deteriorating. Georgia saw its largest demonstrations in a decade last weekend, and protesters have taken to Tbilisi’s streets each day since. With the government implacably opposed to granting his transfer, more have now joined Saakashvili’s campaign: ten opposition MPs, and even more local officials, are now on hunger strike themselves. On Tuesday, they were joined by the renowned musician and civil activist Paata Burchuladze, who called me from the airport lounge in Prague while awaiting his flight back to Georgia. 

“You must understand: if something happens with Saakashvili the whole of Georgia will change immediately,” he says, “we are breaking everything with Europe at this moment”. 

Burchuladze began his hunger strike in the Mikheil Saakashvili library, where he intends to stay until Saakashvili is transferred and claims he is prepared to die if this demand remains unmet.

“Saakashvili is the person who made our country,” he says. “He received Georgia without electricity, without cars, without heating, without an economy; after he arrived as president we had everything: cars, light, heating, a growing economy.” 

But even for many of those who aren’t natural Saakashvili supporters and would dispute this legacy, his treatment matters. The Saakashvili case is fast morphing into a proxy for Georgia’s relationship with Europe: the more shamelessly judicial norms of independence are flouted, the more unlikely the optimistic aspirations of joining the EU become. And each day Saakashvili’s risk of death increases, the further the party system polarises along this geopolitical axis, hierthto avoided, where the ruling Georgian Dream party departs further from Europe and the United National Movement present themselves as aspirationally synonymous with it. 

Few would predict with much certainty the outcome of Georgia’s latest crisis. Ukraine, where Saakashvili is a citizen, could request his extradition. More likely is a protracted deadlock, with the former president’s death and subsequent civil unrest now a real possibility. Whatever Saakashvili’s motivations behind returning to Georgia, even his most opportunistic imaginations would’ve fallen short of the seismic crisis this has become for the government – with both Russia and the EU fast becoming central, if unintended, players in the future of the nation’s democracy.

Photograph by Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images