Another Putin Foe Meets a Grim Soviet-Era Fate
As former President Mikheil Saakashvili’s health worsens in prison, so do prospects for democracy in Georgia.
Sixteen months after his arrest, Mikheil Saakashvili has lost more than 90 pounds and needs a walker to move around his prison hospital. The former Georgian president was, for a time, on a hunger strike, which helps explain his weight loss and his exhaustion. But it does not explain the traces of arsenic, mercury, and other toxins that a doctor found in his hair and nail clippings. It does not explain the beatings he has described to his lawyer. It does not explain the constant pain in his left shoulder, neck, and spine.
Nor can anything other than malice—organized, official, state-sponsored malice—explain why Saakashvili is on a strange medical regimen that includes 14 different drugs, some addictive, some not approved for sale in the United States. Or why he has mild brain damage. Or why he has seizures. Giorgi Badridze, a former Georgian ambassador who keeps in constant touch with Saakashvili’s family, told me that “nothing has been exaggerated. He is doing really badly.” At age 55, Saakashvili is declining rapidly. And as he declines, so do the prospects of a sovereign, democratic Georgia.
Georgia is a former Soviet republic, and to those who live in the former Soviet empire—the same empire that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, now seeks to re-create—Saakashvili’s accumulated prison illnesses form a familiar pattern. The slow prison death was a Soviet speciality: not a murder, not an assassination, just a well-monitored, carefully controlled, long, drawn-out decline. Most of the people who died in Soviet prison camps were not executed; they were merely starved until their heart stopped beating. In Putin’s Russia, torture and the deprivation of medical aid famously killed Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who uncovered an infamous corruption scandal at the highest levels of the Russian regime. Isolation, withholding of food, and other punishments are right now being inflicted on Alexei Navalny and other political prisoners too.
The readoption of this old Soviet practice in Georgia, a country that has, or had, aspirations to be part of NATO and the European Union, represents a symbolic return to the old Soviet empire. The decision to inflict this form of torture on Saakashvili carries even more symbolic weight. As president from 2004 to 2013, he was notable mostly for pushing his country, which borders Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, in the direction of Western liberal democracy. In his years in office, he broke the power of the post-Soviet mafia, battled corruption, fought back against a Russian invasion, and opened the economy. Putin loathed him and his political program so much that he reportedly once said Saakashvili should be “hung by his balls.” He hated Saakashvili for the same reason he now hates the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky: because he used the language of liberal democracy; because he talked about a European, Western future for his country; and because he rejected Putin’s kleptocratic, illiberal ideology.
Saakashvili angered plenty of Georgians too. He made enemies not just among the mafiosi whose careers he destroyed, but also among Georgian liberals and democrats. He cut corners and crossed the edges of legality several times himself. Extravagant stories about him (and there are many) involve Munich nightclubs, Ferris-wheel rides, and late-night, high-speed drives through Tbilisi. His life story is not a black-and-white morality tale of any kind.
But when Saakashvili lost an election, he did step down, which is not typical behavior in the former Soviet world. He left Georgia in 2013, and spent several years in Ukraine—he speaks Ukrainian, having studied there—and enjoyed what can best be described as an exceptionally controversial term as governor of the Odesa region. He received Ukrainian citizenship, was stripped of it, and then got it back again. Finally he went back to Georgia in October 2021, clearly hoping to reenter politics.
This, his supporters believe, is the real reason he was arrested on what his lawyer describes as trumped-up charges, based on cases from years ago investigated in absentia. They also say this is the reason for the slow torment, and perhaps for the slow poisoning of Saakashvili, and indeed leaders of the ruling Georgian Dream party have said, in so many words, that he is in prison because he would cause trouble for them if he were free. Irakli Kobakhidze, the party’s chairman, recently put it like this: “If Saakashvili gets out, he will immediately engage in political processes and will try to take in his hands the function of leadership of the radical opposition.” The government can’t let him out, in other words, because he might try to win. Or he might at least make what Kobakhidze calls the “radical opposition” into a unified and coherent force.
At the moment, that opposition, although it probably represents the majority of the voters, is deeply divided, as so often happens in democracies that have been slowly dismantled by an illiberal political party. Georgian Dream is certainly that: Backed and controlled by Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s wealthiest man, the party has not only locked up Saakashvili but also imprisoned Nika Gvaramia, the director of an independent television station; put pressure on judges; and repeated wearily familiar nationalist, homophobic, and anti-Western themes borrowed from Russian propaganda. The party’s leaders, many of whom are former Ivanishvili employees, have verbally attacked the U.S. ambassador, even falsely accusing her of trying to force Georgia to go to war with Russia. All of that helps explain why, in June, the European Union formally recognized Ukraine and Moldova as candidates for membership but spurned Georgia.
Officially, the Georgian government regretted that decision. Unofficially, maybe not so much. Ivanishvili’s fortune was earned in Russia, and under his leadership, Georgia’s relationship with Russia has evolved into something very hard to explain and understand. On the one hand, Georgians continue to fear a further Russian invasion, which is unsurprising: Russian troops, some stationed less than 40 miles from Tbilisi, occupy about 20 percent of the country. Georgians are vocally supportive of Ukraine, and large majorities say they want to join NATO.
On the other hand, the quantity of what appears to be sanctions-busting cargo flowing through Georgia to Russia surged in the first half of 2022. The Georgian government doesn’t support Russia, but it doesn’t like to say it doesn’t support Russia, or at least not too loudly. And by deliberately antagonizing Georgia’s Western friends, it is slowly making Georgian membership in Western clubs an impossibility. “The reality is that it looks like Putin is winning in Georgia,” Badridze told me.
The slow torment of Saakashvili is a part of that project. His lawyer and his family are asking the government to release him on humanitarian grounds and let him transfer to a hospital in Europe or the U.S. If not, he may well die in prison. But that may be what Putin and his proxies in Georgia are hoping for. If the man who still symbolizes Georgia’s old aspirations to join the liberal democratic world succumbs to a Soviet-style prison death, then those aspirations will die along with him.