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Protesters rally internationally to ‘Save Misha’

5 January 2023
Protesters on Tbilisi’s Bridge of Peace on 4 January. Photo: Shota Kincha/OC Media

Supporters of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili held rallies in at least 20 cities around the world on Wednesday, calling on the Georgian government to ‘Save Misha’. 

Appeals to postpone Saakashvili’s prison sentence on medical grounds have been supported by most Georgian opposition groups, the European Parliament, and the government of Ukraine, where Saakashvili formally still chairs the state’s Executive Reform Committee. 

The ‘global’ rallies in support of Saakashvili were announced on 27 December by Mark Feygin, a Russian human rights activist, and Oleksiy Arestovich, an adviser to the Head of the President’s Office of Ukraine.

Pro-Saakashvili demonstrations were held in at least 20 cities internationally, including New York, Washington DC, Tokyo, Paris, London, Rome, Madrid, Tel Aviv, Canberra, Warsaw, Chisinau, Sofia, and Kyiv; mostly small groups of protesters gathering outside Georgian embassies and consulates. 

Supporters of Saakashvili outside the Georgian embassy in Chisinau. Image via Udjin1965/Twitter

Kavkaz.Realii reported that members of the Chechen diaspora, including supporters of Chechen independence, joined pro-Saakashvili rallies held in Strasbourg, Bern, and Vienna. 

OVD-info, a Russian watchdog that monitors political arrests in the country, also reported the detention of two Russian activists for displaying a banner with the slogan ‘Stop war. Save the children. Save Misha. Free Navalny. Free political prisoners’ on Pushkin Square in Moscow.

In a letter sent to Feygin before New Year’s Eve, Saakashvili insisted that he had been poisoned during his detention, a claim made earlier by the US-based toxicologist David Smith, a member of a group of experts that prepared an as-yet unpublished report under the aegis of Tbilisi-based anti-torture watchdog Empathy. The former president accused the Kremlin of being behind the poisoning. 

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Mikheil Saakashvili, who turned 55 in December, has been at Vivamedi clinic in Tbilisi since 12 May, recovering from a prolonged hunger strike. According to toxicologist David Smith, Saakashvili is experiencing rapidly progressive dementia and PTSD. These may be among the 20 ‘symptoms and conditions’ that the former president was diagnosed with in December, but which were never made fully public.

Screenshot of Mikheil Saakashvili attending a court hearing from his hospital bed. 22 December

Despite statements about Saakashvili’s deteriorating health and possible poisoning with heavy metals from watchdog groups, medical professionals, and Georgia’s public defender, the Georgian government have disputed there being valid grounds for his relocation to a clinic outside Georgia, a matter currently being reviewed by Georgian courts.

House divided

The Saakashvili-founded United National Movement (UNM), Georgia’s largest opposition party, joined the campaign on Wednesday, organising several concurrent rallies in different locations in Georgia. 

The party was, however, less than united. 

While the UNM’s chair, Nika Melia, announced that the demonstration would take place at the Bridge of Peace in central Tbilisi at 18:00 on Wednesday, Levan Khabeishvili, who is challenging Melia for his role, and his supporters refused to join that demonstration. 

Saakashvili’s supporters unfurled a ‘Save Misha’ banner from the bridge and sang the Georgian national anthem. Photo: Shota Kincha/OC Media

Khabeishvili instead organised a separate rally, beginning at the same time, outside the government offices in Tbilisi, a move that earned him criticism from his party’s leadership.

In a statement on Tuesday, the UNM underlined that they had planned rallies at eight locations in Georgia to join the ‘global’ pro-Saakashvili action, and that Khabeishvili had been tasked with overseeing rallies in three cities outside of Tbilisi.

‘Saving the life of President Saakashvili is an issue that should unite us, and it is unfortunate that [certain] individuals use it to divide’, the statement read. 

The UNM agreed to hold internal party elections after a group of UNM leaders from various municipalities demanded it on 9 November, citing the importance of a change in leadership to ‘freeing’ Saakashvili. The party elections are set to take place on 28–29 January.

[Read more on internal UNM divisions on OC Media: ‘Misha must survive!’ — Saakashvili supporters rally for his release

‘It is in the interest of the state that Mikheil Saakashvili is delivered abroad for  recovery, so that Georgia retains a chance at a European future’, Melia stated while attending a rally in Zugdidi.

While thousands took to the streets of Tbilisi in the weeks following Saakashvili’s imprisonment, demanding the ex-president’s release, the UNM has since failed to mobilise people in comparable numbers. 

Focus on Ivanishvili

After concluding the demonstration outside the government offices on Wednesday, the UNM’s Levan Khabeishvili led a crowd of protesters to the Business Center, the residence of Georgian former Prime Minister and billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.

Levan Khabeishvili leading a demonstration in Tbilisi on 4 January. Photo: Shota Kincha/OC Media

The Business Center was heavily guarded by police, as it has previously been the site of UNM rallies. 

Ivanishvili, largely responsible for ousting the UNM-led government in 2012, formally left politics in January 2021 after returning from his first retirement in 2018. Despite his alleged retirement, Ivanishvili has been widely accused by local and international critics of maintaining de facto control over the government, including having the final say regarding freeing Saakashvili from detention.

[Read more on OC Media: Georgian Dream's ‘anti-oligarchy law’ set to bypass Ivanishvili and target his rivals

Giorgi Mumladze, another contender for the position of UNM chair, also symbolically targeted Ivanishvili on 4 January by holding rallies at his residences in the Black Sea resort of Shekvetili and the village of Chorvila, the latter Ivanishvili’s birthplace.

On Wednesday, Mumladze accused the government of using ‘titushki’ — Ukrainian slang for plainclothes security forces used by officials to attack anti-government protesters — against a pro-Saakashvili march he led in Chorvila. 

A screengrab from a video released by Aleksandre Milorava, a participant of the pro-Saakashvili rally in Chorvila.

Several counter-protesters who insisted they were local residents initiated an altercation with the protesters, which continued until the police separated the two groups,  effectively blocking the march towards Ivanishvili’s house in the village.

The UNM has stated that the government effectively obstructed the protesters’ constitutional right to hold a demonstration in the village, through the police response to counter-protesters.

Read in Armenian on CivilNet.