‘Misha, we’re here!’ How Saakashvili’s return and arrest divided Georgians

Saakashvili’s supporters protest outside the prison where he’s being held in RustaviVano Shlamov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Since early October, there have been ongoing protests in Tbilisi by political oppositionists demanding the release of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was arrested after secretly crossing the border into Georgia and returning to the country for the first time in eight years. He now faces at least six years in prison. Meduza asked Georgian journalist Diana Shanava to recount how the former president’s homecoming has divided Georgian society.

Nine years ago, Georgy was standing at Freedom Square, as he is now, at a protest by supporters of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s party, Georgian Dream. At that time, this was an opposition party, but Georgian Dream took charge of the establishment after the 2012 elections.

Georgy was 18 years old in 2012, and it was his first election. He wanted change, and at the time it seemed that only Ivanishvili could offer it. “But we were wrong. Now I’m standing here [at Freedom Square] demanding that Mikheil Saakashvili be freed from prison. I won’t even talk about how Georgian Dream’s policies have disappointed me over these past nine years. But don’t they understand that putting the former president behind bars undermines our country’s credibility in the West?” 

Freeing the former president was protesters’ main demand on October 14. Organizing the demonstration fell to what is Georgia’s largest opposition party today, United National Movement (UNM), which Saakashvili himself founded in 2001. An additional goal for the event was mobilizing allies for local runoff elections, which will be held in several major cities in Georgia on October 30. 

Starting in the morning, protesters from various regions began to gather in Tbilisi. The line of opposition cars from Kutaisi was even showered with whisk brooms by Saakashvili’s opponents, referring to a scandal from 2012 when leaked footage revealed that political prisoners had been raped with broomsticks at Gldani Prison in Tbilisi (Saakashvili was still leading the country at the time).

By evening, people had filled Freedom Square and some of the neighboring streets. Protesters came bearing Georgian, EU, and Ukrainian flags.

Many placards were emblazoned with the words “Free Misha!” Other protesters held red roses, alluding to the Rose Revolution of 2003 that helped bring Saakashvili to power. In the crowd, people said, “He’s a political prisoner” and “It would be shameful if our third president ended up stuck in prison.” 

A protest in support of Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi. October 15, 2021.A protest in support of Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi. October 15, 2021.Irakli Gedenidze / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
A pro-Saakashvili protesterA pro-Saakashvili protesterIrakli Gedenidze / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Some at the demonstration did not support Saakashvili but still disagreed with his arrest. “I personally wouldn’t reelect him, but you can’t deny the importance of what he did for Georgia,” Tamara, a protester from Kutaisi with a “Free Misha!” poster, explained to Meduza. “Unlike Georgian Dream, he pardoned his predecessor [former President] Eduard Shevardnadze. But under Shevardnadze, things were much worse for us than under Misha. Back then, we didn’t have anything.”

Politicians and artists came on stage at Freedom Square to support the former president. “Whether we like Saakashvili or not, we’re talking about a symbol of our country, like our flag or national anthem. What should tip the scales today, the country’s status or revenge against a single man?” asked singer Tamriko Chokhonelidze. 

One of Saakashvili’s lawyers, the CEO of the TV channel Mtavari Arkhi, Nika Gvaramia, came on stage and read aloud an address that Saakashvili had passed along from prison. Images of the Rose Revolution were projected onto a screen behind Gvaramia. 

“Now is not the time to draw lines between us, partisan or otherwise. The time has come for the liberation and salvation of Georgia… I can’t stand aside and watch my homeland be destroyed. I would rather die. That’s why I’m in Georgia. I resolved to stay in order to do my share to defeat the regime,” Saakashvili said in the statement. 

According to the television network Mtavari Arkhi, police encircled several administrative buildings in the city and mobilized police vehicles before the protest had even started. Many demonstrators’ cellular signals and mobile Internet access malfunctioned. Later, Saakashvili’s party claimed that “signal dampeners and audio recording equipment” had been discovered not far from Freedom Square in Tbilisi City Hall. Georgia’s Interior Ministry (MIA) later said the equipment, on the contrary, “strengthens both radio signal and mobile connectivity” and is used to “maintain continuous contact between police units.”

At the end of the protest, United National Movement chairperson Nika Melia stated that Saakashvili had performed an “act of self-sacrifice” and claimed that his return had “infuriated the regime.”

“Our goal is to protect ourselves, our families, our state, and our voices,” said the UNM’s leader, adding that Bidzina Ivanishvili will “either have to get used to defeat or fight to the end” after the elections on October 30.

“Let him pray that his cell has been locked up tight”

Saakashvili’s return has sharply divided Georgian society into two camps. On October 16, two opposing protests took place in Georgia, both devoted to the country’s former leader. 

The first occurred outside Prison Number 12 in Rustavi where Saakashvili was held initially after his arrest. Demonstrators objected to calls for Saakashvili’s release. An enormous placard brought to the prison by protesters showed Saakashvili surrounded by bloody spots, captioned “The Executioner in Prison.”

The protesters self-identified as political prisoners and survivors of repression during Saakashvili’s time in office. The former president’s critics accused him more than once of excessive cruelty toward law offenders, leading to overcrowded prisons. By the time Georgian Dream gained power, prisoners who had been pardoned asserted that they had been sentenced purely due to their political beliefs. 

“He should be paralyzed by fear,” declared a protester named Zaza Davitaya. “Four or five thousand of us are here today. But all of Georgia will come. Let him pray that his cell has been locked up tight. Misha, we’re here!”

That same day, however, activists and the representatives of several NGOs announced plans to establish the “Free Misha!” movement, arguing that Saakashvili’s freedom is essential to alleviating Georgia’s political crisis and ending the country’s political repression.

Over the last couple of years, Georgian police have arrested several high-profile opposition politicians. In February 2020, for example, former Tbilisi Mayor and Saakashvili supporter Gigi Ugulava was detained following corruption allegations, and a year later the leader of Saakashvili’s party Nika Melia was arrested after being accused of taking part in and organizing protests on June 20, 2019. Now both politicians are free: President Salome Zourabichvili pardoned Ugulava, and Melia was released on bail.

Irakli Pavlenishvili, one of the founders of the Free Misha movement, told Meduza that activists are planning to stage protests in Saakashvili’s support almost daily.

The first protest by the Free Misha movement took place on October 16: several dozen people gathered by the residence believed to belong to Bidzina Ivanishvili, the founder of Georgian Dream. 

Police officers also attended — in fact, there were more of them than there were protesters. Activists attempted to affix stickers demanding Saakashvili’s release to the walls of the tunnel leading to the building, leading to a scuffle with police. Afterward, Saakashvili’s supporters assembled outside the prison where he was being held.

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is arrested in Tbilisi on October 1, 2021.Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is arrested in Tbilisi on October 1, 2021.MIA Georgia / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

Supporters also launched a Free Misha website and began gathering signatures demanding the ex-president’s freedom. By October 17, the petition had already collected more than 90,000 endorsements, according to Saakashvili’s Facebook page. Meanwhile, on another platform, the former president’s opponents are gathering signatures to demand that he be put on trial. At the time of this writing, it’s only reached 9,500 signatures. Neither website requires registration or proof of identity.

* * *

Protests in support of Saakashvili are ongoing. At noon on October 18, several dozen of his supporters gathered at Tbilisi Town Hall. The protest was peaceful — until activists decided to spraypaint “Free Misha” on the asphalt. Police stepped in, and two activists were detained.

With continued protests, Georgia readies for elections on October 30. As UNM and Georgian Dream accuse one another of legal violations, a major pro-government TV channel, Imedi, announced that it would be transitioning to an “emergency situation regime” and “launching a campaign against United National Movement.” The channel also proclaimed that it would now be releasing daily stories from people who suffered during Saakashvili’s time in power. Similar tactics were employed during Georgia’s 2018 presidential runoff election when Salome Zourabichvili (who enjoyed Georgian Dream’s support) defeated UNM candidate Grigol Vashadze.

“Until the runoff elections, our reactionary politics will be dictated by government interests. Every day, late into the night, news releases and political talk shows will feature people who experienced pain and suffering due to Saakashvili’s regime,” read one statement from the holding company. “Imedi will remind you of the most difficult parts of our country’s past so that we will never repeat them.”

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Story by Diana Shanava, reporting from Tbilisi

Translation by Elizabeth Tolley

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