The Washington Post
A once-hailed reformer languishes in prison
Mr. Saakashvili’s case is a litmus test for the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
MORE THAN a decade ago, Mikheil Saakashvili carried influence in Washington and Georgia, the former Soviet republic he led as president. He rose to power on the shoulders of the 2003 Rose Revolution, which swept aside a corrupt and stagnant regime. Mr. Saakashvili met with Joe Biden in Georgia when Mr. Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later when he was vice president. In 2012, when seeing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Batumi, Mr. Saakashvili declared that “Georgia was closer than ever” to fulfilling its aspirations to join the European Union and NATO.
Now, Mr. Saakashvili is imprisoned in Georgia, his health deteriorating, and the goals of European integration are slipping away. On Feb. 15, the European Parliament approved a resolution 577-33 calling on the authorities in Georgia to release him and warning that his case “is a litmus test for the Georgian government’s commitment to European values and its declared European aspirations, including E.U. candidate status.”
Mr. Saakashvili is a charismatic and polarizing figure, often intolerant of criticism. But he and a band of reformers modernized the economy, greatly reduced corruption and attracted billions in foreign investment. Georgia’s progress was disrupted when Russia launched an invasion in 2008, a punitive strike intended to blunt the small nation’s affinity for democracy and its desire to join NATO. But Mr. Saakashvili demonstrated a commitment to democratic values when he transferred power peacefully after his party lost an election in 2012.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his disdain for Mr. Saakashvili, once reportedly snapping that the Georgian should be “hung by his balls.” As a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael Mcfaul noted recently in our pages, a successful democracy in Georgia or Ukraine was anathema to everything Mr. Putin stood for. “Putin feared the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine precisely because they threatened the legitimacy and stability of his autocracy in Russia,” Mr. Mcfaul wrote.
Mr. Saakashvili’s rule was followed by that of the Georgia Dream party, created by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who served for a year as prime minister, and still wields power in the republic. Mr. Ivanishvili’s government tilts toward Mr. Putin and has weakened Georgia’s civil society and democracy. Mr. Saakashvili spent a period in Ukraine as governor of the Odessa region — he went to school there — but returned to Georgia in 2021, where he was arrested on politically motivated charges that he had abused his office. He has been in prison ever since, enduring beatings and a dramatic loss of weight, as well as fighting dementia and muscle atrophy.
Mr. Saakashvili once greeted Mr. Biden in Georgia as “my dear friend.” Now is the moment for Mr. Biden to reciprocate and demand his release. Mr. Saakashvili should be allowed to seek medical help abroad. If he perishes in prison, it likely would also be a death knell of Georgia’s quest to join Europe — and a triumph for Mr. Putin, consigning Georgia’s population of 3.7 million to many more years of authoritarian rule.