Georgia’s largest opposition party, the United National Movement (UNM), has moved to restart pro-Saakashvili demonstrations amidst lingering party divisions and uncertainty over the ex-president’s wishes about how to be helped.
Several thousand supporters of imprisoned former President Mikheil Saakashvili congregated on narrow streets of downtown Tbilisi, outside the office of the ruling Georgian Dream office, on Saturday to demand his freedom.
The demonstration, which was organised by the party Saakashvili founded and previously led, opened with emotional calls to ‘save’ his life, by allowing him to be transferred abroad to recover his health.
The organisers of the rally said they chose the location because it was up to the ruling party and its founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to decide Saakashvili’s fate.
The rally was peaceful, with some four lines of undisturbed police officers securing its perimeter after Saakashvili’s supporters marched from the nearby Orbeliani Square behind a large banner reading ‘#FreedomtoMisha’.
The gathering was marred by internal divisions in the UNM, as well as mixed messages from Saakashvili’s family, who have hinted they were not in favour of street marches. In recent days, Saakashvili’s mother, Giuli Alasania, and son, Eduard Saakashvili, stuck to this rhetoric, suggesting the former president had no intention of participating in Georgia’s political life, and was focused on his health.
The organisers vowed to mobilise more significant numbers when Tbilisi City Court will rule on Saakashvili’s appeal to be freed from prison on compassionate grounds.
The protest in central Tbilisi on a rainy Saturday was announced by Levan Khabeishvili, who is currently seeking to unseat UNM chair Nika Melia.
The pro-Saakashvili event reflected a split between Khabeishvili and Melia’s camps within the party; during the demonstration, Melia stood around 20 metres from the speakers, never making a speech, while Khabekhishvili and one of his allies within the party, Giorgi Chaladze, opened the event.
Elene Khoshtaria, chair of the opposition Droa party, also attended the demonstration, though her presence did not prevent the rally, which organisers had sought to make a cross-party affair from being largely a UNM event.
Speakers insisted the gathering was ‘humanitarian’, referring to growing fears that Saakashvili’s health may end up in irreversible jeopardy.
Speakers heavily cited the death of Georgia’s first President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, with warnings that Georgians did not need another ‘shameful’ and ‘tragic’ loss of a president.
The protest took place days after the Tbilisi-based anti-torture watchdog, Empathy, warned that the imprisoned former president could die if he did not receive treatment outside of Georgia.
[Read more on OC Media: Anti-torture watchdog warns that Saakashvili could die without treatment abroad]
While the report was quickly dismissed by Georgian Dream leaders as unreliable, it was submitted by Mikheil Saakashvili’s representatives to the court to request his six-year prison sentence be cancelled or postponed, and for him to be freed to recover abroad.