Georgia: Fate of Ailing Saakashvili Remains Unclear

Tbilisi has refused to acknowledge medical needs as genuine or to release jailed former leader for treatment.

Georgia: Fate of Ailing Saakashvili Remains Unclear

Tbilisi has refused to acknowledge medical needs as genuine or to release jailed former leader for treatment.

Supporters of former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili gather outside court in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo from 2021.
Supporters of former President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili gather outside court in Tbilisi, Georgia. Photo from 2021. © Daro Sulakauri/Getty Images
Tuesday, 17 January, 2023

Analysts have warned that the Georgian government’s continued detention of former president Mikheil Saakashvili despite his deteriorating health is causing severe damage to the country’s reputation abroad.

The 55-year-old was arrested on October 1, 2021, as he returned to Georgia from years living in Ukraine, where he had also served as a state official. He was charged with multiple offences allegedly committed during his presidency and also for illegally crossing the border.

Saakashvili’s legal team warn that his health has been severely damaged during his detention – which included a 50-day hunger strike – but that Tbilisi has refused to acknowledge his medical needs are genuine.

American neurologist Shaheen Lakhan testified at a January 9 court hearing that Saakashvili was suffering from rapidly progressing dementia, convulsions, malfunction of the peripheral nervous system, post-traumatic stress disorder and other issues. 

“I especially want to emphasise the convulsive seizures, which can lead to sudden death, if left untreated,” the doctor said, adding, “In the last eight months, there has been very sharp and rapid deterioration of dementia and given the fact that he is not provided with proper medical treatment and care, I don’t see any possibility of him recovering under these conditions.”

Ani Tsitlidze, a lawmaker from the United National Movement (UNM) party – which Saakashvili founded and previously led - told IWPR that pressure was building on the Georgian Dream government to relent in its treatment of the former president.

In a resolution adopted last year, the European parliament called on Tbilisi to transfer Saakashvili abroad for medical care, emphasising that the government was responsible for his health.

Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, also called on the Georgian authorities to send Saakashvili to Ukraine for treatment.

Tsitlidze herself had spent 12 days on hunger strike in the Georgian parliament building to demand Saakashvili be transferred abroad.

“The government led the third president of Georgia to this condition,” Tsitlidze continued. “Misha [Saakashvili’s nickname] must survive not only because of those 600,000 people who are his supporters, but because of the voters of the Georgian Dream as well, because this government made us live in the hateful environment for more than ten years and it is impossible to survive under such conditions.

“And, if political confrontation is not over in the country, this country will never become European,” she told IWPR.

“Whether we look at this situation legally or politically, the treatment of Saakashvili is absolutely inappropriate for a normal civilised country,” said Giorgi Badridze, senior fellow at the Rondeli Foundation think tank. “If we consider Saakashvili as a former head of state, one of the symbols of the country, a significant part of its history, such treatment is politically unacceptable. And if we consider Saakashvili as a regular prisoner, even in this case such treatment is legally prohibited by law.

“Any prisoner whose life is in danger and who cannot be provided with proper medical care in the facility, must be released or his sentence must be postponed to receive medical care elsewhere. The actions of our government are completely unjustifiable, both politically and legally, and this will not go unnoticed by our partners,” he said.

The Georgian authorities’ actions also cast doubt on their avowed pro-Western course, Badridze continued.

“This is an irrevocable, very strong reputational blow to the country, which has officially declared its desire to get closer to the EU, to receive EU candidate country status,” he said. “In this situation, the entire story of President Saakashvili does not fit into this logic, which has been the goal of the Georgian government until now, at least formally.”

Political analyst Kornely Kakachia said that Moscow would be watching this situation with some satisfaction.

“It is natural that for Russia and Putin’s government, any government which is striving to join the EU and NATO is unacceptable,” he continued. “Therefore, if we take into account the personal relations between Putin and Saakashvili, which to put it mildly have never been good, it is likely that Putin is quite happy with Saakashvili’s status.”

Georgian president Salome Zurabishvili has previously made clear that she would not pardon Saakashvili.

However, during a recent press conference she responded to an enquiry about pardoning Saakashvili by responding “this question will be answered, when it is answered”.

Kakachia said that this apparent softening of her position did not herald imminent action.

“Probably she will not be able to do it on her own and probably the most desirable option for her and for everyone would be if the court would make this decision, and not the president, because it seems that she does not want to make this decision,” he said.

Georgian Dream was already in pre-election mode, a year before the polls, Kakachia continued.

This meant that for the party’s influential billionaire founder, Bidzina Ivanishvili, “seeing Saakashvili pardoned or out of prison is unacceptable”.

“All this leaves an impression that the government is not seriously considering this option at this stage, unless something changes with Saakashvili’s health,” he concluded.

Tsitlidze said that the campaign for Saakashvili would continue, adding, “Each of us should understand that this is not only the fight of the National Movement, it is the fight of every citizen of Georgia, the fight of all pro-Western people for European future of Georgia; that is why every person should understand their share of responsibility.”

Government officials and representatives of the ruling party were contacted for comment but did not respond.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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