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TBILISI, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 17: Elene Koshtaria a dominant Georgian politician, former leader of European Georgia party, and a new movement leader Droa, during the hunger strike lasting for 15 days on November 17, 2021 in Tbilisi, Georgia. Koshtaria is demanding the transfer of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvil to a civilian clinic who has been on hunger strike since October 1, the day the former head of state was imprisoned upon returning to his country after nine years in exile. As well as a major protest called by the opposition, some 10 opposition politicians, many of them MPs, joined deputy and the leader of the Droa political party Elene Khoshtaria on hunger strike demanding that former-Georgian President Saakashvili be transferred to an adequate health facility from the prison hospital where he is currently being held whilst on hunger strike. (Photo by Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images)
The hunger game

The hunger game

TBILISI, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 17: Elene Koshtaria a dominant Georgian politician, former leader of European Georgia party, and a new movement leader Droa, during the hunger strike lasting for 15 days on November 17, 2021 in Tbilisi, Georgia. Koshtaria is demanding the transfer of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvil to a civilian clinic who has been on hunger strike since October 1, the day the former head of state was imprisoned upon returning to his country after nine years in exile. As well as a major protest called by the opposition, some 10 opposition politicians, many of them MPs, joined deputy and the leader of the Droa political party Elene Khoshtaria on hunger strike demanding that former-Georgian President Saakashvili be transferred to an adequate health facility from the prison hospital where he is currently being held whilst on hunger strike. (Photo by Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images)

Elene Khoshtaria may have saved the life of her former president, but will her sacrifice change anything in Georgia? Lara Spirit reports from Tbilisi

Elene Khoshtaria was 42 last week. She spent her birthday starving herself to death on the sofa in a smoke-filled third floor office of Tbilisi’s parliament building – a towering quad of Soviet-era concrete and marble near the foothills of Mount Mtatsminda.

She’d begun a hunger strike 16 days earlier, barely moving since returning here from the Black Sea city of Batumi. For most of this her son, Giorgi, aged 19, had been by her side. But her three younger children had no idea how ill she had become.

“It was the most difficult part. I had to pretend I felt well – when they first came it was fine because I was strong. But it was emotionally difficult, and when they left it was the most terrible day of the strike, and the second time I was so weak that I didn’t move or take showers before they came, to consolidate my strength, so that I could make several steps in the normal way. Then I felt really bad.” 

Khoshtaria, a Georgian MP and the leader of the opposition Droa party, was courting fatal kidney failure. Shielding her children from her starvation proved impossible. At school, a fellow pupil approached one and asked, “what will happen to your Mum?”. “They’d heard something more serious”, she said, “and of course they were stressed – but they trusted my words”.

Around her sofa were strewn water bottles and books (Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth and a Georgian poetry anthology among them, although by now she was no longer well enough to read). A large Georgian flag, four red hearts in each quarter, was hung on the wall to her right; a television showed a government MP speaking in parliament downstairs, wishing her a happy birthday but urging her to end her strike.

A day later, the scene outside her window was much the same as it had been for weeks: protestors lined Rustaveli Avenue, and the curving overpasses and labyrinthine streets near Freedom Square were clogged with traffic. Those protestors waved the EU flag, the Nato flag, any of the many opposition party flags and, most commonly, the same Georgian flag that hung above Khoshtaria’s sofa. 

Today, 19 November, as I made my way through them, the mood among the crowd gathered outside was pensive: in the last 24 hours, their demands and Khoshtaria’s – to transfer the incarcerated and critically ill former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, to a hospital capable of saving his life – are rumoured to have been accepted. If so, it would end her strike too, bringing this small South Caucasus country back from the brink of its worst political crisis in years.

It would become Georgia’s most explicit reckoning yet with its future as either a Western, democratic nation or – to the anguish of most of its people – an authoritarian, isolated annex to Putin’s Russia. 

Barely six weeks earlier, the 200m Vilnius Vessel, a container ship from Ukraine, docked in the dark of Georgia’s Poti Seaport.

A man emerged from the shadows and disembarked. Three hours later, the same mysterious figure stepped from a dairy truck into a Mercedes waiting nearby. By the early morning of the next day he was in Tbilisi.

After almost a decade of exile, Mikheil Saakashvili, 53, was home. 

Within hours, word of his return began to spread across the country. Georgians glued themselves to their screens to watch authorities scrambling to locate and arrest the man who, from 2003 to 2014, led the country into a new era of electricity, taxation and aspirational integration with the West.

It was an audacious gambit, and would inevitably end in arrest. He had been convicted in absentia of various abuses of power and had taunted his political enemies from exile. All that ended in Tbilisi’s old town, a neighbourhood of varied but typically double-storeyed and askew buildings, often with carved, wooden balconies part-concealed by the early autumn trees which lined them. Cuffed and taken to Rustavi prison, photos show a man at ease: flanked tightly by two officers, Saakashvili is beaming in a spotless white sweatshirt. 

He immediately began a hunger strike and, as the days rolled on, supporters flocked to the prison, gathering outside. Tents proliferated, typically bearing his face and the #FreeSaakashvili slogan on their sides. According to international rights advocates, MEPs and senators, he was being denied the right treatment. Soon tens of thousands took to Tbilisi’s streets.

This standoff quickly became a proxy for Georgia’s respect for the rule of law, its future as a democracy and – in the final analysis – its relations with the West. Though Saakashvili’s era had been blighted in its final years by the very corruption he’d declared himself above, it is nonetheless still symbolic of Georgia’s aspiration to join the community of Western nations: a time when sweeping reforms rendered EU and Nato membership near-indisputable features of Georgia’s future, the Russian invasion of 2008 unequivocally rejected by its leadership (20 per cent of Georgia, it is underappreciated, is still occupied by Russia). 

Since 2012, the country has been ruled by the billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream party, who swiftly moved to charge Saakashvili and his acolytes with embezzlement, bribery, abuse of power and other rights violations – and in doing so created a fissure that divides the country still.

By the time Khoshtaria “celebrated” her birthday Saakashvili had been starving himself for 49 days (13 of them without even taking the supplements commonly used to mitigate its effects). As he edged closer to death, Tbilisi witnessed its largest demonstrations in a decade. 

For weeks the government resisted, still revelling in his capture. They released humiliating footage of him being transferred – not to a civilian hospital, as promised, but to the infamous Gldani prison hospital. 

Government-released CCTV footage seemed to show him going willingly – but this seems unlikely given Gldani’s notoriety. In 2012, the prison was embroiled in a scandal that rocked Georgia, involving footage of physical abuse of inmates. In Georgia’s largest prison, Saakashvili was held in conditions which, according to the public defender, “grossly violate human rights”. Behind the thick concrete walls that surround this expansive, dusty complex, set in the northern suburbs of Tbilisi, he was subjected to a form of unrelenting psychological torture – known to political figures here who have been incarcerated in Georgia’s prisons as “Shumock Corner” – in which other inmates direct deafening verbal abuse at a particular prisoner for hours at a time. Giorgi Ugulava, former mayor of Tbilisi from 2005-2013 and one of those Saakashvili associates sentenced after the crackdown by the current government, alleges he was a victim of this himself when he spent three years in Rustavi. “You never forget it”, he said. 

I meet Gigi Gigiadze at Puri Guliani, a popular restaurant alongside the Mtkvari (in Georgian, “good water”), splicing Tbilisi in two and flowing eastwards into the Caspian Sea. An imposing figure, the former Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Senior Fellow at the Economic Policy Research Center orders Adjaruli Khachapuri – a rich mass of egg and cheese, known as “the Georgian cheese boat”. It is enormous. There is another serving for myself and one for Eka Gigauri, the director of Georgia’s Transparency International, who fortunately couldn’t finish hers either. When a plate of deep-fried pastries followed, Gigauri pleaded with him to spare us. 

I ask about Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man. The founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, he served as Georgia’s prime minister from 2012-2013, in the government that succeeded Saakashvili’s. Ivanishvili, though formally removed from politics since 2014, is indisputably at the heart of it: in his “glassle” – a vast, futuristic mansion of glass and concrete which sits atop Tbilisi’s southern hill – he is seen as the puppet master of the successive Georgian Dream governments since 2012. A news report from 28 November, for example, included the headline: “Ivanishvili may replace Gharibashvili as PM” – meaning not, as it might seem, that Ivanishvili would become prime minister, but that he has the power to choose a new one. 

Ivanishvili is like “the two-faced Greek God Janus”, according to Gigiadze. He and his party profess loyalty to hopes of EU ascension while their actions represent a “slow regression, skillfully, of democratic values” that make that impossible. 

Gigiadze laments the many moments in 2021 alone that Ivanishvili’s party shifted further from Europe’s orbit. They include the unilateral withdrawal from an EU-brokered six-point plan in April, which saw the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, shuttle numerous times to Tbilisi to negotiate an end to its latest political standoff. 

They also include the subsequent rejection of EU macroeconomic financing, with the natural democratic conditionalities attached (a particular sadness for Gigiadze, who negotiated the historical visa-free travel agreement with the bloc). But, most alarmingly, they include the increasingly ambiguous Georgian government stance on Erdogan’s proposed 3+3 format – an alliance of Russia, Turkey, Iran with Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia with a strong emphasis on transport infrastructure in the Black Sea and South Caucasus region. If implemented, it would cut off the West, not long ago an unthinkable prospect for Georgia’s largely pro-Western populace. “It would mark an official end to Georgia’s European or Nato perspective”, Gigiadze said. 

This country of overwhelmingly pro-European, pro-Nato citizens has not been further from Western integration since the end of communist rule in 1991. As refugees languish on the Poland-Belarussian border and troops accumulate at Ukraine’s edge, Georgia is a notable omission from Western leaders’ post-Soviet sphere of concern. In the common geopolitical equation, this nation of four million remains an easily forgotten Russian neighbour and garners little attention, despite being just as vulnerable to its control. The Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 is a stark reminder of the threat.

The figure 20 per cent – the amount of territory under Russian occupation – is found all over the city of Tbilisi. It’s emblazoned on in graffiti on its walls, on the banners and clothing of campaigners – like Khoshtaria, who has it on her shirt in press conferences – who together oppose Putin’s encroachment of its borders (Russia’s policy of shameless, so-called salami-slice “borderisation” – a process of creeping, incremental expansion – has gone unsanctioned now for years). And, in its most arresting form, it covers an eyepatch: a visual reminder of the brutal crackdown of protests in 2019 which left Mako Gomuri, an 18-year-old girl protesting the sitting of a Russian MP in the speaker’s chair of Georgia’s parliament, without an eye. 

Creeping autocratic tendencies have become commonplace: monitoring, arbitrary arrests and brutality define the life of activists here, who fight daily for fast-diminishing democratic rights. Many have broken limbs, illegal fines and nights in detention centres to show for it, but still they continue. More than 180 journalists have now lodged cases with Transparency International; in July, dozens of Georgian journalists were beaten at an LGBT+ rally, with one cameraman killed. Gigauri is unambiguous about the future trajectory: “the Russian government is extremely comfortable with our government”, she says.

The major cabinet ministers, his opponents note, are united in sharing a close personal or professional relationship with the former prime minister: the minister of interior, Ivanishvili’s former bodyguard; the minister of health, Ivanishvili’s former dentist; the minister for infrastructure, Ivanishvili’s former company manager; the minister for secret services, Ivanishvili’s bank’s former manager – to name but a few.

And yet: in this spiralling history of democratic erosion, the past weeks appear among its most grave. In Khoshtaria’s apartment of connected rooms in parliament that afternoon, friends and press sat nervously, many of them smoking in corners of adjoining rooms. Her condition was by this point critical and, despite her best efforts to conceal it, her fragility was unmistakable: loved ones barely averted their gazes from her, their concern at her movements immediately obvious even to strangers like me. 

She had texted Irakli Kobakhidze, chairman of the government party (they had remained in negotiation via text) that morning to escalate her strike: she would now refuse medicine, she said, until Saakashvili’s transfer. “That would give me three to seven days before life-threatening kidney damage,” she told me. “But by this point I was prepared to die – and they knew that”. 

Khoshtaria’s 16 days had failed to force the government’s hand, and Saakashvili was critically close to death (he had lost consciousness in prison the day before, suffering convulsions from the Wernidze encephalopathy – a life-threatening neurological illness he had developed in the latter stages of starvation). So she had raised the stakes, delicately weighing the risk to her own life against the chances of saving his. Within hours, doctors and politicians alike were privately admitting they were more concerned about her condition than even Saakashvili’s; hours later, the government finally relented, offering Saakashvili a transfer to Gori medical hospital.

Just after this offer, the press poured into Khoshtaria’s room. She’d been relatively isolated these past weeks; the strike had left her vulnerable to infection, while Georgia’s Covid-19 daily death rate had since climbed to the third highest in the world. Now she moved carefully, her friends pushing her wheelchair slowly into a sea of microphones and cameras in the neighbouring room, to announce – in a hoarse but firm voice – the end of her protest.

Irakli Kobakhidze in his statement on behalf of the government announced Saakashvili’s transfer: “I can say unequivocally that there is no need to transfer Mikheil Saakashvili. However, the starting point for us was the lives and health of specific people, which should be protected. Especially in the case of Elene Khoshtaria, a delay would not be appropriate, as she has actually been on hunger strike for more than two weeks.”

Saakashvili and the other nine striking opposition MPs, who I found decanted in a corridor in parliament two floors below, were accused of faking. But they had never once questioned Khoshtaria’s strike. Why? “At every second, they knew I would do what I said”, she told me. Khoshtaria’s political motivations were cleaner in their eyes, too: she left Saakashvili’s party in 2017, and has been a leading opposition figure in her own right since (“As a newcomer to Misha’s party, I refused to follow all their instructions – and I was challenging them”). The young activists who she is frequently seen crossing barricades with at protests are rarely Saakashvili apostles, and – the government knew – her commitment elevated the protest for Saakashvili’s treatment in the eyes of many from a partisan question to one of basic human rights. 

“This was a case of political revenge”, Khoshtaria told me, “a very harsh and inhumane one”. 

Indeed: Khoshtaria and others wouldn’t deny the sense in trialling Saakashvili, his convictions by no means considered by independent organisations – such as Transparency International – to be necessarily groundless. But in Georgia’s court system, governed by a form of “clan rule” (as this documentary made by activist Nodar Rukhadze aptly reports), a fair trial is considered impossible, leaving not a single institution to mediate highly polarised disputes. Campaigners have demanded his trial be independently conducted, but – as it continues – the chances of this are slim (when Saakashvili appeared in court on 30 November, he said of his regrets in government: “first and foremost, my mistake is this court. That we failed to create an independent judiciary harmed many”). Numerous government sources were approached for this story, but all refused to comment on any of the issues relating to the Saakashvili affair.

Khoshtaria was transferred to hospital in Krtsanisi St after her statements that afternoon, the sun setting early in this city encircled by its mountains, just clipping the tops of this eight-storey complex as she left. Protestors were slowly dispersing, an early calm falling on Rustaveli Avenue as she made her way, pushed in a wheelchair, through the temporary iron fencing which surrounds this complex in times of political crisis. Supporters waited outside to cheer and thank her. “I was quite weak when I left the parliament. I didn’t expect a group of people to meet me and I was a bit confused – in a positive way of course”.

“I’ll be here for seven days, with recovery taking a month”, she tells me calmly when we speak by phone the following day, alone in a quarantined hospital while receiving intravenous liquid supplements. 

She can’t say what will happen in Georgia’s next chapter. Saakashvili’s health has improved, and he has begun testifying in court. But Ugulava likened the Georgian Dream’s strategy as comparable to the South Korean TV hit Squid Game: under total control, participants are subject to a form of relapsing-remitting, episodic terror. Ivanishvili might’ve granted some relief on Friday, but now that he finally has control over Misha – as Saakashvili is known to Georgians – the chances of him getting a fair trial, or being released, remain close to zero. 

Photographs Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images, Vano Shlamov/AFP

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