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Mikheil Saakashvili served as president of the Republic of Georgia from 2004 to 2007 and from to 2008 to 2013.
Since February marked the one-year anniversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s maniacal and unprovoked military invasion of Ukraine, Georgia and other countries in the region have continued sliding toward the Kremlin. Georgia’s democratic regression was again highlighted with the release of the United States State Department’s Human Rights Report, while the global threat to democracy was showcased during a meeting between Putin and President Xi Jinping of China last month.
At the same time, however, people of Georgia confirmed their commitment to democracy and the fight against such tyranny by protesting in the streets in front of the parliament building in downtown Tbilisi.
The people of Georgia — who overwhelmingly want to join the European Union and NATO — were protesting against a newly promulgated “foreign agents” law, which would require any organization receiving over 20 percent of their funding from overseas to register, or face criminal charges and substantial fines. Analogous to a current Russian law, the bill was targeted to restrict the work of independent journalists and democratic institutions.
This all took place only a few miles from the prison cell where I struggle to stay alive, and where I, too, continue to defend democracy against Putin and his allies. I am a political prisoner in Georgia — the country I led as president from 2004 to 2013 and worked hard to reorient toward democracy and the West.
After just months in power, I was praised by leaders in Europe and the U.S. for championing democracy and free markets, and ending a period of de facto control over my country by organized criminal syndicates. In 2005, I was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain for “having won popular support for the universal values of democracy, individual liberty and civil rights.”
Feeling threatened by the success of Georgia’s Western-oriented reforms, in August 2008, Putin ordered the invasion of Georgia, resulting a brief war. Rather than flee, I, like my friend Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was determined to fight and stand up to Putin’s aggression. After the war, Russia controlled over 20 percent of Georgia’s territory, which it still holds today — the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia — but I survived and continued to lead until stepping down after my second term.
I then presided over the first peaceful transfer of power brought about by democratic elections in the region.
At that time, and for several years after the war in 2008, I tried to warn my Western colleagues about Putin’s imperialist ambitions and the threat he posed. But while the West expressed much-needed support and solidarity with our cause, few seemed to take the threat of Putin’s militarism seriously. Apparently, the Kremlin’s ridiculous narrative that my government somehow provoked the war had sewn enough doubt for many in the West to convince themselves that Putin didn’t have broader revanchist aims.
Of course, the war in Ukraine has laid bare Putin’s true imperialist ambitions to restore the Soviet empire by annexing its formerly held territories, but I derive no satisfaction from being proven right. For the man who once threatened to “hang me by the balls” is, undoubtedly, ultimately responsible for my current predicament.
Georgian Dream, the political party that came to power after I stepped down, was established and continues to be run, behind the scenes, by billionaire oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili — a man who made his fortune in 1990s Moscow and is widely understood to have close ties with Putin.
And despite overwhelming support among the Georgian people for EU integration — an estimated 80 percent support joining — the Georgian Dream government shows increasing solidarity with Russia. While there is, of course, legitimate apprehension about being openly hostile to the Kremlin given the danger Georgia faces, the vast majority of Georgians support the Ukrainian cause, which the government is attempting to suppress.
When I returned to Georgia in October 2021, after eight years in exile, to support free and fair parliamentary elections, I was a healthy, energetic 54-year-old man. I was then immediately arrested by Georgian authorities and have been imprisoned ever since based upon hearsay and politically motivated charges of “abuse of power,” which only the Kremlin and the current Georgian government consider legitimate.
And in detention, my health has declined precipitously; I am now dying.
I have been systematically tortured, physically and psychologically, and there is currently evidence of heavy metal poisoning in my body. I now suffer from a bewildering array of over 20 serious illnesses, all of which developed in confinement.
In light of all this, in mid-February, the European Parliament issued a resolution calling for my release and, noting Georgia’s democratic backsliding, it passed nonbinding resolutions calling for sanctions against Ivanishvili. Meanwhile, the Georgian Dream government continues to mock Western leaders, gleefully overseeing a rapid drift away from a European future for Georgia, as peaceful civilians are beaten and tear gassed for supporting democratic ideals.
Despite Georgia’s deteriorating relations with the U.S., senators Jeanne Shaheen and Dick Durbin recently visited Tbilisi to meet with government officials. And while the senators’ request to visit me in prison was predictably rejected, I appreciate their interest in my health and well-being. I also commend current Congressional leaders, such as representatives Joe Wilson and Steve Cohen and senators Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin, for their efforts against the attacks on Georgia’s strategic partnerships and the jailing of political opponents, as well as their opposition to Georgia’s foreign agent law — a rebuke to the Georgian people’s EU and NATO aspirations — and the country’s rapid democratic decline.
Without the help of Congress and the Biden administration, alongside the EU and U.K. parliaments, the current government will continue to turn a blind eye not only to democracy but the rule of law, and the fundamental pillars of human rights will continue to erode in Georgia.
It is also increasingly apparent that I will die soon if I don’t receive proper medical care outside of the country.
I continue to call on the U.S. and the international community to do what they can to save my life by applying diplomatic pressure on the Georgian government, and imposing economic sanctions against Ivanishvili and his associates.
My death may cause political chaos in Georgia, but my martyrdom will certainly be considered a victory for Putin — a powerful symbol to all leaders in this region, and possibly the world, who fail to stand up to Russian imperialism.
If, however, the U.S. Congress and the Biden administration can work with the EU to secure my release through sanctions, economic embargoes, the suspension of funding and visa restrictions, it will not only be another blow to Putin, but it will also send a strong signal that the U.S. and Europe remain committed to the ideals of democracy, decency and justice.
Ideals that President Biden once told me I could rely on.
*This piece was received from Mikheil Saakashvili’s U.S. legal counsel, Massimo F. D’Angelo.