by Sofiko Megrelidze
TBILISI, Georgia (AP) — Former President Mikhail Saakashvili was arrested after returning to Georgia, the government said on Friday, a move that came as the former leader was critical of the country’s political makeup in national municipal elections. Before, they were demanding to mobilize supporters.
Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s announcement came hours after Saakashvili, who was convicted in absentia on abuse of power charges and has lived in Ukraine in recent years, posted on Facebook that he was back in the country. .
Details of the arrest were not immediately clear, but Georgian TV aired a video on Friday evening of Saakashvili in handcuffs, with a wide smile on his face, who was detained by police.
In an earlier Facebook video, Saakashvili said he was in the Black Sea port and resort of Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city. Georgian officials denied earlier in the day that he was in the country.
Saakashvili said in the Post that Saturday’s election was “important” for Georgia and called for a rally in Tbilisi on Sunday, promising to be involved.
Saakashvili’s efforts to rally the Georgians could advance the ruling party’s plans to gain dominance in voting for mayors and local assemblies, widely regarded as a vote of confidence in the national government and next year’s May trigger early elections.
The European Union struck a deal in April to ease a political crisis between the ruling Georgian Dream Party and opposition groups, including Saakashvili’s United National Movement, the country’s second-largest political force.
The agreement stipulated that snap parliamentary elections should be called in 2022 if the Georgian Dream receives less than 43% of all proportional votes in local elections in the country’s 64 municipalities.
However, it is not clear whether the EU agreement will be followed. In July, the Georgian Dream withdrew from the agreement because the United National Movement had not signed it. The opposition party finally signed on this month, and Saakashvili urged supporters to join the polls.
Saakashvili’s shrill grin while in police custody underscores his penchant for public drama, especially his bold entrance into unwanted places.
He first gained international attention in the Rose Revolution protests of 2003, when he led a crowd of protesters into a parliament session, forcing then-President Eduard Shevardnadze to flee; Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister, resigned a day later.
In 2017, he forced his way from Poland to Ukraine with a crowd of supporters after his Ukrainian citizenship was revoked.
Going back to Georgia, even though he faced few arrests, Saakashvili also echoed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who had returned to Moscow from Germany in January, was arrested on arrival and later sent to prison. .
Hours after his arrest on Friday, a video was posted to his Facebook page in which he and Ukraine’s Member of Parliament Yelizaveta Yasko announced they were in love and “together”. He said the video was recorded before his departure for Georgia.
Saakashvili was president in 2004–13 and was noted for his vigorous efforts against Georgia’s endemic corruption, but he became uneasy with what Georgians saw as his authoritarian leanings and his sometimes-business behavior.
Saakashvili left the country shortly after the 2013 election, in which he could not run, won by the candidate of the Georgian Dream.
In 2018, Georgian courts convicted him and sentenced him to up to six years in prison.
Saakashvili moved to Ukraine, where he became governor of the corruption-ridden Odessa region, and obtained Ukrainian citizenship, which ended his Georgian citizenship. However, he fell out with then-president Petro Poroshenko, resigned his post and was stripped of Ukrainian citizenship.
He was forced to return to Ukraine in 2017, but was eventually deported to Poland. After Poroshenko’s successor Volodymyr Zelensky came to power, Saakashvili returned to Ukraine and was nominated to the top post fighting corruption.
“Zelensky is concerned by this news,” said his spokesman, Serhi Nikiforov. “Ukraine is appealing to Georgia for clarification of all circumstances and reasons for this move in relation to this Ukrainian citizen.”
The Georgian Prosecutor’s Office said a case was opened against Saakashvili for illegally crossing the border, although the basis for such an allegation is unclear as Ukrainian citizens do not need a visa to enter Georgia.
Associated Press writer Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed.