Former President Mikhail Saakashvili said on Friday that he had returned to Georgia from exile ahead of local elections in the Caucasus country beset by threats of arrest and a protracted political crisis.
“I risked my life and my freedom to come back,” Saakashvili said in a video on Facebook, adding that he was on the Black Sea coast in the western Georgia city of Batumi.
“I call on everyone to go to the polls and vote for the United National Movement,” he said, referring to Georgia’s main opposition party.
The 53-year-old flamboyant pro-Western reformer was Georgian president from 2004 to 2013 and came to power in a wave of street protests.
He called on his supporters to gather on Tbilisi’s main street on Sunday.
Earlier on Friday, he wrote on Facebook: “Good morning. I’m back in Georgia after eight years.”
Georgia’s Interior Ministry told the independent Formula TV channel that “Saakashvili did not cross Georgia’s state border.”
Saakashvili’s return from Ukraine – where he heads a government agency steering reforms – has raised the stakes ahead of Saturday’s municipal elections, which are seen as a crucial test for the increasingly unpopular ruling party.
Saakashvili is wanted by Georgian officials over allegations of abuse of office, which he says are politically motivated.
He left Georgia in 2013 when his second and last term as president ended.
On Monday, he announced his planned return from Ukraine, saying he would fly to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi on Saturday evening and post a copy of his ticket.
Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said at the time that “if Saakashvili sets foot on Georgian soil, he will be immediately arrested and jailed.”
Western capitals have accused Georgian officials of a political witch-hunt and Interpol has turned down Tbilisi’s requests to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.
Georgia plunged into political turmoil last year, when opposition parties denounced winning the election as rigged by the ruling Georgian Dream Party.
In May, European Council President Charles Michel mediated an inter-party agreement under which the Georgian Dream promised to call snap parliamentary elections if it secured less than 43% of the vote in Saturday’s local elections.
But in July the ruling party unilaterally withdrew from the deal, which was strongly criticized by the European Union and the United States.
In his video address on Monday, Saakashvili insisted that the EU brokerage deal would remain in place, adding that the upcoming election “is a referendum on removing (Georgian Dream founder Bidzina) Ivnishvili from power.”
Oligarch Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man and former prime minister, is believed to be active in Georgia, but says he is no longer a political player.
Critics accused him of using indictments to punish political opponents and critical journalists.
With growing concerns in the West over the ruling party’s democratic credentials, the United States has signaled possible sanctions against Georgian Dream officials.
In recent years Saakashvili has established himself as an enemy of corrupt oligarchs whose “informal power suffocates what remains of democracy in Eastern Europe.”