Saakashvili's return to Georgia could set election alight

Saakashvili's return to Georgia could set election alight
Saakashvili is wanted in Georgia on charges of abuse of power.
By Carmen Valache in Istanbul May 30, 2016

Mikheil Saakashvili's days as governor of the Odesa region in Ukraine may be numbered, according to a recent interview with the former Georgian president.

Just as his office in Odesa was being ransacked by the prosecutor general, following a falling out with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Saakashvili told the Georgian broadcaster Rustavi 2 that he intended to return to Georgia, where he would support the party that he founded, the United National Movement (UNM), in the parliamentary election campaign in the autumn.

Saakashvili's statements are all the more surprising because he is wanted in Georgia on charges of abuse of power related to a government crackdown on protesters in November 2007 and a raid and seizure of television station Imedi TV.

In August 2014, he was placed on pre-trial detention in absentia, and was stripped of his Georgian citizenship after becoming an Ukrainian citizen in 2015. He has denied the charges as politically motivated.

The likelihood of him being arrested once he sets foot on Georgian territory is very high. Not only is there an arrest warrant under his name, but the Georgian judiciary remains under state control despite the country's democratic progress in the last decade.

Saakashvili is as loved by some as he is hated by others. Known as a reformer who transformed Georgia into the most democratic and business-friendly country in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and for his efficient, although unorthodox fight against corruption, Saakashivili's administration nevertheless came under fire for engaging in exactly the type of actions which it claimed to combat: nepotism, abuse of power by state authorities, and violations of human rights.

After protracted protests in 2011, his party was defeated in the 2012 parliamentary election by a newly-formed party, Georgian Dream (GD). GD's founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, a Georgian billionaire who had made his fortune in Russia in the noughties, has become Saakashvili's worst rival, and is believed to be behind the subsequent moves to sideline Saakashvili from Georgian politics.

The former president left Georgia after his second term ended in October 2013, and has not returned to the country since.

Saakashvili initially found an ally in Ukraine's Poroshenko, to whom he promised he would reform Odesa, sending a message to the Kremlin. But just like other Poroshenko allies, Saakashvili has grown dissatisfied with the pace of reforms in the country.

"For a long time, Poroshenko has been very flexible,” Saakashvili told the Guardian in an interview in May. “If you were a reformer he spoke reform language. If you were someone old-fashioned, he said ok, we can find a way to deal with you. Now he’s brought in a government which has not got any vision of reforms at all.”

He referred to the new Ukrainian government headed by Volodymyr Groysman as "a bunch of mediocre people", a comment that will not have endeared him to the new administration, including the new prosecutor general.

In the Rustavi 2 interview, Saakashvili indicated that he intended to remain focused on both Georgia and Ukraine – where he is involved in founding a new political party – but he has made strong enemies in both countries and may be forced to soon narrow his interests .

“No one should doubt or see my decision as a threat. I plan to return to Georgia and actively participate in the [political] process. I’m planning to continue my struggle both here in Ukraine and at home in Georgia,” he said.

Saakashvili may be keen to return to Georgia because of the UNM's failure to enhance its approval ratings as the leading opposition party despite an economic slowdown. With the election campaign set to begin on June 8, UNM is locked at 19% approval rating compared to Georgian Dream's 20% according to an opinion poll conducted by the International Republican Institute in March and April.

He may also be fearful of how Georgian Dream will use the state apparatus, and Ivanishvili’s vast wealth of over $5.5bn, to dominate the October election.

But his return to Georgia would only inflame what is an already polarised political scene. Saakashvili and the UNM have been locked in a war of words - and violence - with their opponents over the past two years.  Only four days earlier, Saakashvili himself was threatening to oust –or "even worse" – "the uneducated oligarch from Chorvila" [Ivanishvili] after defeating him in the parliamentary election.