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Saakashvili’s plight and the continued unravelling of Georgia-Ukraine relations

While Georgia and Ukraine have both suffered from Russian aggression, their relations overall remain strained. A large part of this issue is caused by the ill health of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, whose connection to Ukraine has caused a diplomatic rift.

July 28, 2023 - David Kirichenko - Articles and Commentary

A group of protesters calling for the release of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili during his hunger strike in May 2022. Photo: Phil Pasquini / Shutterstock

Tensions have recently escalated between Georgia and Ukraine, two nations formerly united in a shared struggle against Russian imperial aggression. This has occurred as both countries grapple with the delicate balance of internal politics and moving towards European integration. The arrest, incarceration and abuse of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who also holds Ukrainian citizenship, have all ignited a firestorm of criticism and further strained relations between the two traditionally brotherly nations.

Saakashvili’s condition, which has led him to now weigh about 60 kilograms, half of what he weighed upon his arrest in October 2021, and alleged traces of mercury and arsenic found in his body, have led Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to call for Saakashvili’s immediate release and extradition to Ukraine for necessary medical treatment.

Zelenskyy went as far as to ask the Georgian ambassador to Ukraine to leave the country within 48 hours for consultations with Tbilisi regarding Saakashvili. Despite Georgia’s denial of any violation of Saakashvili’s rights, the political tug of war over the former Georgian leader’s fate has evolved into an international crisis. The pro-Kremlin Georgian authorities categorically deny any violation of Mikheil Saakashvili’s rights and assert that he is receiving the necessary treatment and care.

Zelenskyy’s recent tweet that “Russia is killing Ukrainian citizen Mykhailo Saakashvili at the hands of the Georgian authorities,” adds another layer of tension to an already volatile situation. Georgia’s ambiguous stance towards Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and its lack of anti-Russian sanctions, coupled with the decision to restore direct flights with the country, further fuel the growing mistrust and suspicion.

Despite these mounting tensions, a total severance of diplomatic ties between the two countries appears unlikely. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba referred to the decision to recall the Georgian ambassador as “drastic but a fair step”. Overall, he viewed it as justifiable given Tbilisi’s handling of Saakashvili’s situation.

Saakashvili, who became president of Georgia in January 2004, made the return of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia a priority during his presidency. This policy put him on a collision course with Russia and ultimately led to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia.

For Saakashvili, the tumultuous years following his presidency have been marked by exile, arrests and political battles. After leaving Georgia at the end of his second term, Saakashvili settled in Ukraine, serving as the governor of the Odesa region for a year.

In 2018, a Georgian court convicted him in absentia and sentenced him to a six-year prison sentence on charges of abusing power, allegations he claims are politically motivated. In October 2021, Saakashvili was arrested in Georgia upon his return from self-imposed exile, aiming to strengthen his United National Movement party for the municipal elections.

The arrest sparked controversy and backlash, with many accusing the Georgian government of political persecution due to the party in power being pro-Russian. Russian President Vladimir Putin also holds a personal vendetta against Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, having once stated that he deserved to be hanged by his testicles. Now, it seems that Putin’s desire for a torturous end for his opponent has been realised.

This animosity persists today, with Saakashvili’s supporters accusing the Georgian government, led by the Georgian Dream party under Bidzina Ivanishvili, of pro-Russian sentiments and political persecution. Saakashvili’s former defence minister, Davit Kezerashvili, stated that “most neutral observers recognise his imprisonment for what it is: a grotesque abuse of power, designed only to protect Russian interests in the region.”

Georgian public sentiment, however, reveals a strong pro-EU and pro-NATO stance, with 83 per cent of Georgians approving of EU membership and 85 per cent perceiving Russia as a “political threat”. Georgia’s political landscape remains divided and complex. Despite the government’s apparent appeasement of Moscow, the public outcry against Russian aggression and support for Ukraine in its recent conflict with Russia is palpable.

Tbilisi resonates with the spirit of Ukraine. The cityscape is draped not only with Ukrainian flags, but also with signs expressing support for the war-torn nation. On certain balconies, one can even see red and black flags — the colours associated with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during the Second World War.

Georgians express admiration for Ukraine’s resilience and extend aid to Ukrainian refugees. There are even many Georgian volunteers who have sacrificed their lives fighting for Ukraine since the onset of Russia’s full-scale invasion. There is an unmistakable air of remorse when they discuss the recent political leanings of their government and parliament, which seem to be tilting increasingly towards Russia.

As a result, Ukraine’s government and people do hold significant influence within Georgia. Perhaps this should be a sign to Georgia’s leaders that the country is heading for a Euromaidan revolution of its own. While Ukraine and Moldova are making significant strides towards EU integration, a path for Georgia is becoming ever distant by the day.

Overall, Saakashvili’s plight has undoubtedly put a strain on Georgian-Ukrainian relations, with his suffering and potential death a win for Putin in the end.

As both countries face the common threat of Russian aggression, their unity is more crucial than ever. At stake is not only the health and freedom of a former president but also the future direction of a nation torn between a democratic future with the West, and Russia, which wants to drag the country back to an authoritarian Soviet past.

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe and an editor at Euromaidan Press, an online English language media outlet in Ukraine. He can be found on Twitter @DVKirichenko.

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