Is Returning Home a Fatal Mistake? Mikheil Saakashvili Life After Returning to Georgia

Kseniya Sabaleuskaya
Former President of Georgia, Georgian and Ukrainian politician Mikheil Saakashvili in Kyiv, Ukraine. December 2020

Belgium (Brussels Morning), In September 2021, former President of Georgia, Michael Saakashvili, returned to Tbilisi, where he was immediately detained by police officers. Since then, the ex-president has spent time in Rustavi Prison and is currently in a Tbilisi clinic due to health issues. Many experts believe that his return to his homeland was a fatal mistake that changed the life of the Georgian politician on “before” and “after”. But is it so? Are his previous mistakes as an eccentric politician not worse than this?

Michael Saakashvili was born in 1967 in Tbilisi. His mother, Giuli Alsania, was a history professor and the head of the “House of Friendship of Georgia and Azerbaijan” public association. Saakashvili’s father, a medical professional, left the family immediately after his son’s birth. Later, Michael’s mother remarried Beritashvili Zurab Kometiani, the chairman of the Scientific Council of the Institute of Physiology. Thus, Michael was raised in an educated and intellectual family.

Michael Saakashvili received a good education, graduating from a school in Tbilisi with honors. He studied at Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv and received a scholarship to study at Columbia University and the University of Washington. He gained extensive experience through internships in the USA and Europe and returned to Georgia with a wealth of knowledge.

He initially served as a deputy in the Georgian parliament, later becoming the Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs and then the Minister of Justice. However, due to the inability to implement any reforms and widespread corruption, he left the parliament.

In November 2003, Georgia held parliamentary elections, the results of which were not recognized by the opposition. Mass protests erupted, and supporters of the “National Movement” and two other opposition parties led by Saakashvili stormed the parliament building with roses in hand, taking control of the government. This event became known as the “Rose Revolution.” Subsequently, all three opposition blocs united into a single party, the “United National Movement,” under the leadership of Michael Saakashvili.

In 2004, presidential elections were held, and Saakashvili received 97% support, becoming the third president in Georgia’s history, while his party, the “United National Movement,” won the majority of seats in parliament.

Unlike the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine, the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia was indeed a revolution, leading to fundamental changes. Saakashvili inherited a Georgia that was far from thriving. The state was falling apart, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia nearly seceding, and Adjara also seeking sovereignty. Add to that the political and economic crisis: widespread corruption, constant power outages, infrastructure problems, and high crime rates.

Repairing this chaos was a daunting task for the newly elected president and his party. They began by purging the government, dismissing state officials, police officers, and politicians—anyone associated with the old system of power and values. They recruited new, capable workers who had no ties to the Soviet system of governance but brought fresh energy and ideas. State-owned sectors of the economy were privatized, business regulations were streamlined, foreign investments were attracted, and the number of taxes was reduced while salaries for public sector employees were increased. All the “thieves in law,” as they were referred to, were either arrested or agreed to abide by the rules of the new government, or they were imprisoned.

The most visible reform to this day is the police reform. All “old system” officers were dismissed, and recruits underwent various American-style physical and psychological tests. The criteria for recruits were much more demanding than in the Soviet era. Each candidate had to have at least a higher education, good physical fitness, and no criminal record. Particular attention was paid to the appearance of police officers:

“Our motto is not to have a single policeman with a belly among us. I hope that after the reform is implemented and law enforcement agencies become more efficient, there will be significantly fewer police officers with bellies,” said Georgian Minister of Internal Affairs Giorgi Baramidze.

Police cars were renewed, and officers were issued new equipment, including weapons and Volkswagen vehicles. Every police officer wore a navy blue uniform, akin to American cops. According to the rules, police had to respond to calls within a few minutes. Additionally, a separate Criminal Police unit was created, and only individuals with legal education were admitted. A system of covert police oversight was established, involving special investigative services, surveillance cameras, and a hotline to report police abuse.

This contributed to building a high level of trust among citizens, not only in the police but also in the government. As a result, the level of trust in the police in Georgia reached over 70%, compared to 5% in 2003. According to surveys conducted during the reform period, the police were one of the most trusted institutions among citizens, second only to the Church and the military. Starting with the police, Saakashvili put an end to corruption in other areas, such as bureaucracy, customs, the military, and more. It is for these victories against corruption that he is most renowned.

The military was also reformed. Defense ministers were replaced one after another, and only Irakli Okruashvili managed to carry out a proper military reform. Equipment, uniforms, and regular rations were changed. A full-scale “Training and Equipping” program was launched, resulting in Georgia receiving four well-trained infantry battalions from the United States. This marked the appearance of the country’s first, though small, combat-ready units with 4,000 soldiers.

Saakashvili also managed to create a tourist industry in the country, establishing special tourist routes and rebuilding the historic center of Tbilisi. He also revitalized the resort of Batumi, today known as the Georgian Las Vegas, which stands as one of his political achievements.

Under his leadership, the production of wine in Georgia was revived. In the 1990s, Georgian wine was mainly sold as homemade wine in plastic bottles by the roadside. Today, Georgian wine is highly esteemed and recognized in the international market.

Michael Saakashvili was not afraid to take loans from international organizations and gamblers. One such example is his connection with Donald Trump.

In 2012, Donald Trump participated with Michael Saakashvili in the presentation of a new “Trump Tower” project in Batumi. Unfortunately, the project was not completed due to a change of power in Georgia, and Trump himself canceled it in 2017. In this way, former US President Trump sought to dispel doubts that his business would cause a “conflict of interest” immediately upon entering the White House.

As seen, Saakashvili, along with other reformers like Kaho Bendukidze and Nino Burjanadze, acted boldly and sometimes took significant risks. Bendukidze, the former Georgian Minister of Economy, believed that the only way to eliminate the burdensome Soviet system was through “destructive destruction.” He put it this way: “For society to fully develop, it must grow. You can’t take a piece of wood and cut a small tree out of it because it will still be dead. It must grow on its own. Therefore, reforms that involve the destruction of as many regulations as possible, even those we sometimes consider useful, like simplifying the tax system. At the same time, these reforms contribute to economic development and the formation of society.”

However, reforms also have another side. For instance, Georgia still has a relatively high unemployment rate, inflation remains high, there are not many technological industries and insufficient investments have been made in production and technology. Healthcare reform also remained unfinished.

In 2007, a serious political crisis erupted in Georgia against Saakashvili. A former Minister of Internal Affairs accused the president of eliminating political opponents, including Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, who served from 2004 to 2005. Massive protests began in Tbilisi, with protesters making various demands, from early parliamentary elections to the president’s resignation. Clashes with the police occurred. To everyone’s surprise, Saakashvili resigned from his position and announced early presidential elections. They took place in January 2008, and Michael Saakashvili won in the first round with 53% of the votes.

In his second presidential term, Saakashvili is primarily remembered for the 2008 war with Russia. Michael Saakashvili aimed to go down in history not only as a reformer but also as a “restorer of Georgia’s territorial integrity,” a goal he partially achieved. The separatist movement in Adjara was completely suppressed. However, conflicts in Adjara and South Ossetia persist to this day.

Saakashvili held power until 2013, and in his last year in office, he effectively became an opposition figure. In 2012, Saakashvili’s “United National Movement” lost the parliamentary elections to the “Georgian Dream” party founded by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili. Kaho Bendukidze believed that the reason for the defeat was a scandal related to torture in a Georgian prison. Saakashvili himself announced his transition to the opposition, and his associates gradually began leaving Georgia out of fear of persecution by the new government. A year later, he concluded his presidency and had to leave Georgia immediately, as several criminal cases were initiated against him in his homeland.

The first accusation against him was abuse of power. According to sources, in 2009, Saakashvili pardoned police officers convicted of the murder of Alexander Girgvliani, a prominent United Bank of Georgia employee.

The second accusation against Saakashvili was embezzlement of public funds for personal use. We are talking about $3 million, which, according to investigators, were wasted on personal needs, including “fees for chefs, masseurs, cosmetologists, and a designer.”

The third case against Saakashvili is an accusation of attacking MP Valery Gelashvili, which falls under “abuse of authority.” Based on the same criminal article, Saakashvili was charged with brutally suppressing the 2007 demonstrations.

The fourth case brought against Saakashvili is his involvement in the murder of Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania in 2005. According to official reports, Zhvania died as a result of a gas leak from a gas heater.

Saakashvili was also suspected of allowing the murder of influential businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili. He was also burdened with charges of illegal border crossing and starting a war against South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Russian peacekeeping forces.

Today, Michael Saakashvili plays the role of a polarizing figure in Georgia. On the one hand, he has many supporters, and his “United National Movement” is the country’s second-largest political force. On the other hand, many people openly hate him and will never vote for him. The reason for this is the same as in other cases of rapid and successful reforms in developing countries. On one hand, Saakashvili’s reforms repeatedly enriched all Georgians and improved their quality of life. On the other hand, Saakashvili destroyed the traditional culture and way of life of Georgians, forcing people who had lived for decades according to tradition to now live under the law.

In 2021, Michael Saakashvili decided to return to Georgia after 8 years of exile. The politician likely hoped that, considering all his achievements for the Georgian people, he would be welcomed as a hero. Unfortunately, as with Navalny, this did not happen. Immediately upon the ex-president’s arrival at Batumi airport, he was arrested and taken to Rustavi Prison. Today, Michael Saakashvili resides in a clinic in Tbilisi, where doctors are fighting for his life. This raises one fundamental question: Was returning to his homeland worth it?

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Kseniya Sabaleuskaya is a multilingual student hailing from Belarus but currently pursuing her academic journey in Poland, where she is fluent in Russian and Belarusian. She is now embarking on an Erasmus adventure in Granada, studying Political Science and Sociology in English while honing her Spanish skills. With a background in tutoring Polish and crafting insightful articles on various political subjects, Kseniya is passionate about researching, analyzing, and drawing her own conclusions.