Why the arrest of an ex-president may be one crisis too many for Georgia

Georgian police officers escort former president Mikheil Saakashvili after he was arrested in Rustavi, Georgia, on Oct. 1. (AP)
Georgian police officers escort former president Mikheil Saakashvili after he was arrested in Rustavi, Georgia, on Oct. 1. (AP)

Ever since Georgia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the country has aspired to full membership in European and transatlantic institutions. Saturday’s local elections come at a critical moment: Democratic institutions are under serious stress. And if that weren’t enough, now another crisis looms. On Friday, the authorities announced that they had arrested ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili excites intense emotions among his compatriots. He came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003, which swept away a corrupt and stagnant predecessor regime. He and a group of dedicated reformers proceeded to accelerate the modernization of the country, making it the envy of advocates for change around the world. Yet the U.S.-educated Saakashvili also proved a highly polarizing figure, one who showed little tolerance for criticism or opposition.

Georgia’s progress was stalled by a Russian invasion in 2008, which was triggered in turn by conflict in the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Thirteen years later, Russia still occupies a fifth of Georgia’s territory. But the war did not destroy Georgian democracy. Saakashvili left the presidency at the completion of his mandate, ensuring a peaceful transition of power. Before that, the Georgian Dream party, created by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, had already taken over parliament and government.

The Ivanishvili regime soon turned into little more than an anti-Saakashvili regime, and the new leaders began to take revenge against the former reformers. Saakashvili was forced to flee the country and move to Ukraine, where he was awarded citizenship in return for a promise to help that country implement reforms similar to those he had engineered in his homeland. But he proved unable to deliver, souring his relations with the government in Kyiv.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s political divides have steadily deepened. This polarization has endangered not only its progress toward democracy but also its continuing economic reforms. Relations with Russia have become extremely tense, and the Orthodox Church has emerged as a strongly reactionary element in Georgian society.

In the spring of 2021, European Union President Charles Michel launched a mediation effort aimed at overcoming some of the most destructive aspects of the events that have taken place since the 2020 election. With U.S. support, an agreement was reached, offering hope of a new beginning.

Yet success has been elusive. Georgian Dream, still the ruling party, has reneged on parts of the agreement, and the United National Movement, once the party of Saakashvili, has managed to generate only limited enthusiasm for it. The agreement stipulated that new parliamentary elections should be held if support for Georgian Dream was seen to be waning.

Saturday’s election has been accompanied by the usual allegations of irregularities, but the international community should allow the vote count to be fully completed before the next stage of the process can begin. At best, there could be a new start in the efforts to restart the democratic path of the country. At worst, a new phase of destructive polarization could start.

Saakashvili’s fate is likely to play a crucial role in what happens next. A Georgian court convicted him on charges of abuse of power in 2018; he was sentenced in absentia to six years in prison. To a large extent the charges brought against him are politically motivated, even if there may be a substantive basis behind them. Now it is up to the Georgian government to show it can uphold the rule of law. Instead of summarily detaining him, the government should give Saakashvili the possibility of defending himself in a fair trial under close international observation.

The E.U., acting in close coordination with the United States, must not only continue its mediation efforts but also be clear in the messages it is sending to Tbilisi. Georgia has much work ahead if it wishes to realize the full potential of its far-reaching E.U. agreement and membership in the E.U. Eastern Partnership, as well as its further integration with NATO.

Brussels and Washington must make clear that these goals can be achieved only by respecting democratic principles and the rule of law, and by moving away from the politics of revenge and polarization of justice.

The choice is up to Tbilisi. The future of the country hangs in the balance.

Carl Bildt is a former prime minister of Sweden and a contributing columnist for The Post.

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