Mikheil Saakashvili
© Irakli Gedenidze/APGeorgia's jailed ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili is seen via a video link in February during a hearing to consider a request to release him or defer, over health concerns, his six-year sentence for abuse of power.

Comment: Tthe Guardian puts out a puff piece attempting to rehabilitate a war criminal who among other things, fanned the flames of Ukraine's neonazi coup. While a person's imminent death is tragic, it does not warrant whitewashing his past or abetting his lies.

Mikheil Saakashvili warned of Putin's ambitions 15 years ago. Now he tells of torture by a regime that panders to Moscow

Locked up in a Tbilisi hospital, Mikheil Saakashvili is slowly wasting away.

"I am asking to be transferred to Poland, as it is crystal clear that in Georgian hospital I will die," Georgia's former president wrote in response to questions from the Observer last week. His answers were scrawled in blue ballpoint pen on sheets of paper, passed to his lawyers.

Photographs and video of Saakashvili in hospital show him gaunt and confused. A recent report from independent experts suggested his health has deteriorated severely and he will soon face irreversible organ damage. Since his arrest, he says, his weight has halved to 60kg.

Comment: Perhaps partly due to Saakashvili's past grandstanding?

Theatre of the Absurd: Stateless Saakashvili goes on hunger strike in Ukrainian jail

"Your eyes hurt when you look at him, it's not a person any more but a ghost," said Giorgi Chaladze, Saakashvili's lawyer and political ally who regularly visits him in hospital.

Two decades ago, Saakashvili led Georgia's Rose Revolution, and the early years of his subsequent presidency were hailed by many in the west as a model for reform in post-Soviet countries. He left office after a decade with a mixed reputation, his reform agenda derailed by the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and accusations of growing authoritarianism.

Now, the incarceration and rapid decline of a man who put his country on a path towards EU and Nato integration is seen by many of Georgia's western allies as a symbol of the country's drift back towards Moscow's orbit of influence. While Georgian society remains resolutely pro-western, its government is accused of stealthily doing Russia's bidding.

At home, Saakashvili remains a polarising figure, but even many of those who dislike him are uneasy about his treatment. Saakashvili returned to Georgia in 2021 from Ukraine, where in 2015 he was appointed governor of Odesa based on his reformist credentials.
Bidzina Ivanishvili georgia saakashvili
© Imedi TVBidzina Ivanishvili
He wanted to re-enter politics in his home country, but on arrival in October 2021 was immediately arrested, after being convicted in absentia of abuses of power. He was transferred from prison to hospital last May. Many see his imprisonment as the fulfilment of a vendetta against him by his political rival, the oligarch Bizdina Ivanishvili. Back in 2012, Saakashvili's United National Movement was replaced as Georgia's ruling party by the Georgian Dream coalition, led by Ivanishvili, a Georgian who made his fortune in Russia in the 1990s. Saakashvili's allies insist Ivanishvili is a Russian asset.

An openly pro-Russian position would never fly in Georgia, where memories of the 2008 war still linger and with Moscow still de-facto occupying 20% of Georgian territory. Surveys consistently show that an overwhelming majority of Georgians are in favour of European integration. Buildings across Tbilisi have been painted with Ukrainian flags or graffiti obscenities about Vladimir Putin.

But critics say Ivanishvili, who is still believed to control the Georgian Dream government despite having no formal role, is sabotaging the European integration agenda while claiming to support it, and thus playing into Moscow's hand.

"Since the start of the war, Georgian Dream has consistently made statements against the EU and European values," said Eka Tsimakuridze of Democracy Index Georgia.

A key EU decision on granting Georgia candidate status is due in December, after it was postponed last year while Ukraine and Moldova were accepted. In February, the European parliament voted overwhelmingly for a resolution that described Saakashvili's arrest as a "personal vendetta" against him, and called for his release. The governing coalition has ignored the demands.

More troubling for many Georgians than Saakashvili's incarceration were the plans to introduce a new law last month that would require organisations receiving foreign funding to register as "foreign agents". Dubbed the "Russian law" due to its similarity to legislation enacted by the Kremlin, it led to protests in Tbilisi and an eventual U-turn from the government.

Comment: Given Georgia's turbulent history, this seems a prudent, reasonable measure.

The Georgian Dream government has also equivocated on the war in Ukraine, citing fears that being too openly pro-Ukrainian could lead to renewed conflict with Russia. Georgia has ended up playing down support for Kyiv, which sits uneasily with many Georgians. Giorgi Margvelashvili, who was the country's president between 2013 and 2018, said it was "unbearably painful" to watch as the government tried to maintain neutrality in the war, even as many Georgian volunteers have gone to fight.

"I don't think we have the resources to help economically or militarily, but politically we should be out in the front. It is our historic responsibility to be leading this cause, we have been through this ourselves ... instead, they're driving this country into the Russian sphere of influence," he said.

Although he is a longstanding critic of Saakashvili, Margvelashvili said it "was horrible to watch on as our former president is being killed".

Saakashvili accuses Ivanishvili of having him arrested on Putin's orders. Putin despised Saakashvili, and famously declared he wanted to hang him "by the balls" in a conversation with the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy around the time of the 2008 war.

Around that time, many in the west dismissed Saakashvili's warnings about Putin as scaremongering, but now some wonder if he might have been right all along.

"Saakashvili told leaders in Berlin, Paris and elsewhere that Georgia was a test case for Putin's ambition to recreate the Soviet empire through threats, coercion and violence. We were universally laughed at and met with rolling eyes," said Daniel Kunin, a former senior aide to Saakashvili.

Comment: If Russia really wanted Georgia, it could have taken it in 2008. 'Nuff said.

Now, claims Saakashvili, Putin is following through on his threats. His team also claim the former president has been poisoned with heavy metals in prison and is subjected to regular torture. Asked to elaborate on these allegations, Saakashvili wrote: "Was beaten up. Taken to prison 'hospital' with most violent criminals and dragged through their [illegible] where they were non-stop spitting and then during 10 days couldn't switch off light as they would immediately scream death threats."

On Friday, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, made an appeal for the release of Saakashvili, who has been a Ukrainian citizen since 2015: "If a person needs medical attention and his life depends on it, then this step is necessary." Separately, the jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny slammed the "awful and heartless" treatment of Saakashvili in a statement from prison, saying it was affecting Georgia's bid for EU candidacy and "decreases the chance of a normal future".

Comment: Not exactly the crowd a sane person would want advocating for them.

The government's climbdown over the foreign agents law has been enough to calm the protest movement for now, and a rally against Saakashvili's treatment drew only a fraction of the numbers of the protest against the law. But many Georgians are looking to December, when the EU is due to decide whether the country has made enough progress to be declared an official candidate country.

"We can see this is a historical moment, and if we don't use it now who knows when this window will be open again," said Giorgi Ekaladze, a fourth-year law student at Tbilisi State University who was one of the organisers of student protests over the law last month.

Appetite for enlargement is minimal in many EU countries, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine has provided an opportunity for countries like Georgia to push the point that Brussels should act if it does not want to leave the path open for Russian dominance.

While Saakashvili remains a controversial figure for many Georgians, internationally, the continued imprisonment of the man widely referred to as "Misha" is perhaps the biggest obstacle to a positive decision on Georgia's EU future, given strong support for Saakashvili in the Polish and Baltic governments.

Inside Georgia, too, the photo and video footage of Saakashvili in prison have shocked even many of his critics.

"There were many systemic human rights violations during Saakashvili's rule, but in a rule-of-law state you need to bring proper charges, not do it like this," said Tsimakuridze.

"You might have a bitter political disagreement with Misha but his possible death in prison would be a disaster for this country," said Salome Samadashvili, formerly Georgia's ambassador to Brussels and an MP from Saakashvili's party, who recently split to join another opposition party.

"If he dies in prison, it will create a deep wound in Georgian society that will be difficult to heal, and nobody will be talking about Georgia's EU candidacy for a long time," she said.