Thousands of people have gathered in Tbilisi in support of former president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is on his 14th day of hunger strike in prison.
The protest was organised by Georgia’s largest opposition party, Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM).
The third Georgian President, currently a Ukrainian citizen heading the Executive Reforms Committee of Ukraine, was arrested two weeks ago after covertly crossing into Georgia on the eve of local elections.
Saakashvili has insisted he is the victim of political persecution ordered personally by Bidzina Ivanishvili, the ruling Georgian Dream Party’s founder, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Saakashvili departed Georgia in late 2013 upon concluding his presidential tenure, evading questions from Georgian justice soon after that while building a political career in Ukraine.
He faces a minimum of six years in prison after being convicted in absentia in 2018 on several counts of abuse of power, including ordering an attack on political opponent Valeri Gelashvili and illegally promising to pardon law enforcement officers implicated in the 2006 murder of Sandro Girgvliani.
The UNM mobilised supporters from across the country, with many arriving by convoy to the capital. They were greeted by several groups of people holding brooms, with some throwing them at vehicles and cursing Saakashvili.
UNM leaders claimed the groups were mobilised by local officials belonging to the ruling party and public employees.
Snubbed by other opposition groups
While the UNM has insisted the demonstration voiced a cross-party and ‘national’ demand, other opposition groups snubbed the event.
Whilst still claiming that Saakashvili was unlikely to face a fair trial under the Georgian Dream Government, opposition groups European Georgia, Lelo, Strategy Aghmashenebeli (more recently known as Third Power), and the Republican Party refused outright to join the protest.
Some underlined that the focus should remain on the second round of local elections scheduled for 30 October. Several opposition leaders, nevertheless, decided to join the demonstration individually, including Droa party leader and former UNM member Elene Khoshtaria.
In the second round of municipal elections, the ruling party faces runoffs in all five self-governing cities.
For Georgia party, led by former Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia, distanced themselves from the event more than others by also refusing to consider Saakashvili’s imprisonment politically motivated.
[Read also on OC Media: Datablog | What were the greatest successes of Shevardnadze, the UNM, and Georgian Dream?]
‘Only one khinkali’
Following his detention on 1 October, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili made several statements against Saakashvili, including threatening to press additional charges against him, earning him criticism both locally and internationally and raising questions over the ability of the justice system in Georgia to provide a fair trial to the former president.
While Ukrainian authorities vowed to seek his return to Ukraine, local news outlet Ukraynsy Novini reported that as of 14 October, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine had not made a request to extradite him.
How the former President sneaked into Georgia remains unclear.
Before and after his detention, Saakashvili has poked fun at the Georgian authorities with photos published on his Facebook page allegedly showing him in Batumi and even in front of the Parliament Building in Tbilisi.
‘We wish Mikheil Saakashvili freedom. Today he is freer than us!’, Gigi Ugulava, a former UNM official currently running for Mayor of Poti said at Thursday’s protest.
‘Once upon a time, 18 years ago, he drank tea which changed the history of this country’, he said, in reference to Saakashvili drinking tea from then–president Eduard Shevednadze’s office after protesters stormed parliament in 2003.
‘Today he was not allowed to eat khinkali. He will definitely eat his khinkali and you will be left with the nubs. Because you deserve nothing more’, Ugulava said.
Saakashvili is expected in court next month over several other cases, including the latest — illegal border crossing charges.
Saakashvili’s detention has been closely monitored by Georgian Public Defender Nino Lomjaria, who recently criticised the authorities for disrespecting Saakashvili’s privacy by publicising details of his health.