Editor’s Note: The following letter was written by Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, who was imprisoned in October and spent nearly 50 days on a hunger strike while in jail. He submitted the letter to POLITICO Magazine through his lawyers and members of his political party. Shortly before this letter was published, Saakashvili collapsed in prison due to deteriorating health and was transferred to a military hospital, after which he agreed to end the hunger strike.
During Saakashvili's tenure as Georgia's president from 2004 to 2013, he sought to align the Eastern European nation with the West and was seen as symbolizing the democratic aspirations of the former Soviet republics. Toward the end of his presidency, however, he increasingly faced criticism for autocratic behavior by his own government, including alleged efforts to intimidate political opposition and instances of police violence against protesters.
After Saakashvili conceded defeat to the Georgian Dream party in the 2012 elections, he left the country and served for a time in the Ukrainian government. Georgia’s current government, which is still led by Georgian Dream, convicted Saakashvili for abuses of power in absentia, meaning his arrest was all but certain when he returned to the country. In this letter, Saakashvili accuses the ruling party of election manipulation, repression of opposition and other undemocratic practices — concerns that have been echoed in recent years by Georgian protesters and international observers.
I am writing from penitentiary establishment #18 in Tbilisi, Georgia — the country where I once served as president. I returned to Georgia in October after several years in exile, and was arrested on charges I believe to be politically motivated. For almost exactly 50 days, I maintained a hunger strike, protesting my own arrest as well as the Georgian government’s broader efforts to undermine democracy. In the past few years, the ruling Georgian Dream party has consolidated control of the judiciary and many state and non-state media outlets, allowed corruption to soar, manipulated elections, and pushed the country into closer alignment with Putin’s Russia.
During my presidency, then-Vice President Joe Biden visited Georgia to pledge U.S. support after Russia invaded and partially occupied the country. “We the United States stand by you on your journey to a secure, free, democratic and once again united Georgia,” Biden promised. He called on my administration to ensure a “transparent, accountable and fully participatory” democracy.
Today, I call on his administration to do its part to support our young democracy, which is in grave danger. Given Biden’s goal of advancing the cause of democracy over autocracy, I hope to see him hold Georgia’s government accountable for undermining the freedoms we’ve worked so hard to achieve.
I became president of Georgia in 2004, when the peaceful “Rose Revolution” called for democratic reforms, eradication of corruption and integration into the Euro-Atlantic family. The irony of fate would have it, that — in part because of our democratizing efforts — my party lost a free and fair election in 2012. We peacefully ceded power to the coalition led by the Georgian Dream party, headed by Bidzina Ivanishvili. Senator Jeanne Shaheen recalled my concession in her speech after the U.S. Capitol riot on January 6, 2021, stating that peaceful transitions of power can never be taken for granted.
Having come to power through democratic processes, Ivanishvili’s government quickly turned anti-democratic. Today, Georgian state institutions including the judiciary, law enforcement and state security services are almost exclusively serving the interests of a small clan affiliated with the ruling party, at the expense of the rule of law. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has raised concerns over voter intimidation and other undemocratic tactics in recent local elections. And in July, violent anti-LGBT demonstrators targeted activists and journalists in Tbilisi, forcing the cancellation of a Pride march and eventually resulting in the death of a cameraman. Activists accuse Georgian authorities of complicity in the face of threats against reporters and the LGBT community.
Meanwhile, the government has de facto suspended any practical efforts to advance on the road to NATO membership — something the Georgian people have repeatedly indicated that they favor. Instead, Georgia is flirting with a platform of “regional cooperation” with Iran and Russia, animated by the idea of rooting out Western influence from the strategic South Caucasus region. This should worry the Biden administration: When he visited in 2009, Georgia was a reliable ally in a challenging region. Today, Georgian Dream is sealing the country’s fate as a Russian client state.
The Ivanishvili regime charged me in absentia years ago with various abuses of power. I believe these charges are unfounded and a worrying example of the party’s attempt to silence opposition. That’s why I returned to Georgia this fall after several years out of the country, aware that I would likely end up in jail. I hope to call attention to the worrisome state of affairs here, which thousands of Georgians protested in the streets after last month’s elections.
The Biden administration has emphasized the importance of strengthening and defending democratic values, including the rule of law and freedom of speech. Now, the Georgian people need active backing of their democratic and pro-Western aspirations against the threat of authoritarianism. First and foremost, the U.S. should openly condemn the Georgian authorities for their efforts to undermine democracy. The U.S. Congress also should consider imposing sanctions on human rights offenders in Georgia under the Global Magnitsky Act. (On Friday, a group of European parliamentarians called on the EU to consider individual sanctions on those responsible for my "inhuman and degrading treatment“ in prison.) A visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken or another high-ranking official would show American solidarity with the people of Georgia. Finally, the Biden administration should reverse its decision to invite Georgia’s government to its upcoming Summit for Democracy, an invitation that sends precisely the wrong signal and risks legitimizing Georgian Dream’s anti-democratic practices.
The United States has a long history of supporting democracy in Georgia against undemocratic elements at home and abroad. In the face of today’s worrisome erosion of freedom and growing Russian influence, I am hopeful — and confident — that the Biden administration will make clear where it stands.
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