Ex-president Saakashvili says he is back in Georgia — despite arrest warrant

Mikeil Saakashvili said he had arrived in time for Saturday’s local elections, and called on supporters to ‘take back control’

Oliver Carroll
Saturday 02 October 2021 09:05 BST
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, says he has returned to the country
Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, says he has returned to the country (AFP/Getty)

Estranged president Mikheil Saakashvili said he had returned home to Georgia on Friday, despite orders being out for his arrest — setting up a battle of wills with his longtime foe and the local kingpin billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

In a grainy, nighttime video apparently shot on the Black Sea-front promenade of Batumi, the bling casino resort Mr Saakashvili helped popularise, the former leader said he had "risked everything" to come back.

"I have really missed this place," he whispers, grinning and dressed in a hooded top. "Today, my dream is fulfilled."

Mr Saakashvili said he would travel to the capital Tbilisi in time for Saturday’s all-important local elections. He said a vote for Georgian Dream, his rival Mr Ivanishvili’s political party, was to vote for a "Georgian death sentence". He called on supporters to join him to "take back" the country.

"Even if this usurper government manages to arrest me, even if they stop me, we should strengthen our forces," he said. "In any case, I won’t stop and neither should you."

The former president announced his intention to return home on 27 September, publishing tickets for a flight due to arrive on 2 October. Few thought he would follow through on such a risky move that on the surface appeared to mirror the ultimately calamitous homecoming of opposition leader Alexei Navalny to Moscow in February.

Authorities, who said they had no record of Mr Saakashvili crossing the border, reiterated threats to send him to jail. The former leader features in four criminal cases and has been found guilty in absentia on two counts: assault and abuse of power. Mr Saakashvili and his allies say the charges are politically motivated.

Never far from drama, the western-educated Saakashvili shook up Georgia after seizing power during the 2003 Rose Revolution. Over two intense presidential terms, he turned his country on its head, towards the west, but also towards a damaging war with Russia in 2008.

The early Saakashvili had huge success modernising the relatively backward post-Soviet state, eradicating much official corruption at the lowest level. But following a scandal over prison torture, his party was forced from power in 2012, pushing the larger-than-life politician to declare self-imposed exile abroad.

The underwhelming life that followed — as a hipster in Brooklyn and frustrated change-maker in Ukraine — always suggested another chapter was in store.

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