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POLITICS

“It's a miracle I'm still alive, given the Russian secret services roam freely in Georgia”: The Insider interviews Mikheil Saakashvili

On October 1, 2021, the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, returned to his homeland despite facing criminal charges. He did not hide the fact that Alexei Navalny's example had given him the resolve to do so. In prison, Saakashvili's condition deteriorated sharply. The politician is sure that he was subject to a poisoning aided by local billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and orchestrated by the Kremlin. In an interview with The Insider, Saakashvili explained why he believes the Georgian authorities are cooperating with the Kremlin and how he sees the future of change in Georgia.

How are you feeling now?

I am still pretty weak. Doctors say that my full recovery cannot happen in present conditions. I am the only person in the world whom Putin several times wanted to kill publicly, and I am still alive. Given that Russian secret services roam freely in Georgia, it is a miracle.

How are you being treated in prison?

I am also banned from telephone calls and from meeting with members of parliament, even though [those privileges are] guaranteed by the law.

You said that there was likely an attempt to poison you. Can you remember when you first felt the symptoms and what they were? Do you feel your life is in danger now?

I was feeling perfectly well for many weeks in prison, and suddenly I woke up at night with a very high fever, severe shivering, sweating, and vomiting. Rash on the whole body. These symptoms persisted for many weeks. My whole body was burning, from inside and outside. I had trouble moving and there were sharp changes in my personality, as if it was no longer me. I was transferred to the prison hospital, where I continued to lose weight. I lost half of my body weight.

Mikheil Saakashvili addresses journalists after a meeting with members of Ukraine's Servant of the People parliament fraction in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 24, 2020
Mikheil Saakashvili addresses journalists after a meeting with members of Ukraine's Servant of the People parliament fraction in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 24, 2020

Do you have any idea on how the poison got into your body?

It came through the food that was sent by my family from outside, but it passed through the hands of the prison administration. If the poisoning was initiated by Georgians, then the decision could only come from Ivanishvili. Judging by the later attempt at a cover-up, it looks like the Georgian authorities were at least part of the process.

It looks like the Georgian authorities were at least part of my poisoning

When you were returning to Georgia in October 2021, you had already seen the example of Navalny, who was immediately imprisoned upon his return to Russia in January 2021. And yet, you decided to return. Why?

I tried to go back during the 2020 Parliamentary elections in Georgia, even before Navalny’s brave return. But certainly Navalny served as an additional source of inspiration. I have regrets about not being in Ukraine now, where I could be extremely useful with my skills and experience. But on the other hand, my presence in Georgia in many ways keeps the political process alive here.

After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, other post-Soviet countries are also concerned about their security. Do you think there is a possibility of another Russian attack on Georgia? Is Georgia ready to defend itself today?

Georgia is not capable of defending itself, but I believe while Ivanishvili is fully in control, Russia will not hurry with an invasion. Ivanishvili wants to have a Russian-style government in Georgia. He is running the country as his personal fiefdom. It is the only case in the world where an oligarch actually owns the country, with all its institutions. People are very polarized in Georgia, and if you speak your mind, you might lose your job or social benefits.

Why is Georgian society divided?

Georgian society is polarized by the fact that an oligarch has a full monopoly over the government, businesses, even land and forests, leaving very little space for the others. Above all, it is an income and opportunities polarization. There are two parallel media and political environments that rarely [overlap]. And last but not least, he is keeping the main opposition figure behind bars on accusations that everyone knows are totally fabricated.

Do you think there is secret cooperation between the current Georgian and Russian authorities?

Georgia is already a hub for sanctioned goods to enter Russia, as was discussed recently by the U.S. Senate. Also, I suspect Ivanishvili is involved in money laundering for the Russian banking system, of which he had been a part. Ivanishvili’s personal fortune has grown by more than €1 billion since the war began. One of the examples of money laundering has been changing the regulations by Georgia’s central bank to allow a U.S. sanctioned former chief prosecutor of Georgia with FSB ties (who, among others, started cases against me) to take out his money from Georgian banks. As I have said, Georgia is run like a mafia state, but so was Moldova under Plahotniuc and Slovakia under Mečiar. Things are going to change radically here as well.

Georgia is run like a mafia state, but so was Moldova under Plahotniuc and Slovakia under Mečiar

Do you expect the changes in Georgia to manifest through mass protests akin to the Rose Revolution? Or can changes be anticipated after the parliamentary elections this year?

I don’t think Georgians have given up on elections yet. Especially considering the complicated geopolitical environment, they would like to proceed within the existing institutional framework. Certainly, if the election is stolen, then it will be an entirely different game. That’s why we need long-term observation missions, as oligarchs usually steal elections not so much on the election dates, but beforehand.

Thousands protested in Tbilisi in November 2021 demanding Saakashvili's release
Thousands protested in Tbilisi in November 2021 demanding Saakashvili's release

Are Western countries providing enough support to Ukraine and Georgia? If not, what more should they do?

Foreigners can promote democracy in Georgia through bolstering civil society and securing my freedom. This can only be achieved by a credible threat of personal actions.

What kind of actions?

Ivanishvili shall be sanctioned. He is running the country as his personal fiefdom. Every infringement of law, every major source of corruption, pro-Russian tilt, and political prisoner initiative is from him. [Sanctioning him] could solve all the problems.

And as for Ukraine?

As for Ukraine, America has the main role to play now, and also I believe that European troops should be present in Ukraine under the leadership of France. It could highly lift the morale of Ukrainians on the ground. Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union within its original borders and inflict defeat on NATO. He will not stop until he is stopped. But the West, by helping Ukraine, will pave the way for securing democracy in the entire region. I am saying to millions of my supporters in Georgia and Ukraine that I will fight for my two countries and their freedom and wellbeing till the end.

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