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Time for the U.S. and E.U. to Get Tough with Georgia

The government’s apparent glee at abusing the country’s former president merits a more serious response from the West.
November 12, 2021
Time for the U.S. and E.U. to Get Tough with Georgia
Georgians rally to demand the liberation of the jailed ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi on October 14, 2021. (Photo by Vano SHLAMOV / AFP) (Photo by VANO SHLAMOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Yesterday, the government of Georgia released videos of authorities’ inhumane, degrading, and brutal treatment of imprisoned former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili. Let me repeat that: The Georgian government released evidence that it had violated the human rights of that country’s third president.

Those responsible both for the brutal treatment and for the absurd PR campaign should resign immediately. But whether or not they do, they should be sanctioned by the West. Topping the sanctions list should be the current prime minister, Irakli Garibishvili, and his patron, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili. The latter is destroying Georgian democracy through state capture, corruption of the judicial system, and toadying to Moscow (which, by the way, is exploiting Saakashvili’s treatment, claiming this is what happens to those who get close to the European Union and the United States).

The official reason for Saakashvili’s arrest was illegal border crossing. Saakashvili had left Georgia and surrendered his citizenship after his presidency, eventually becoming governor of the Odessa Oblast in Ukraine. While abroad, he was convicted in absentia of various crimes by Georgian courts, though the cases were seen as largely politically motivated. After eight years of semi-official exile, he returned to Georgia last month on the eve of local elections with full knowledge that, as a prominent representative of the largest opposition party, his homecoming was a provocation to the current government and that he risked arrest. He hoped that his return would generate protests against the government and increase turnout in the local elections.

The videos released yesterday show Saakashvili undergoing physical and verbal abuse after being transported to a prison hospital due to a prolonged hunger strike. Georgian authorities should allow Saakashvili to be treated at a reputable civilian hospital and then should return him to Ukraine, where he had been living, if only to tamp down tensions temporarily.

Saakashvili is no saint and made serious mistakes in 2007-2008, but he also helped transform Georgia into a promising, Western-oriented, young democracy—and that is why it has stood out from other countries in the region.

Nobody, not least a former president of the country, should be subjected to the kind of humiliating treatment Saakashvili has endured. The release of the videos is likely to provoke large demonstrations. Amid rising political violence in the country, it will be difficult for both the opposition and the government to ensure peace—and one side or the other might not be interested in doing so.

Saakashvili’s treatment is part of a larger pattern of human rights abuses by the current Georgian government. Garibishvili returned to the prime ministership in February (he served as premier several years before), and within days authorized the arrest of the main opposition leader, Nika Melia, which led to a political crisis for several months until the European Union brokered a temporary resolution.

Months later, Garibishvili encouraged Russian-linked far-right provocateurs to prevent an LGBTQI Pride march and assault more than fifty journalists. One journalist later died from the beating he endured. Garibishvili later withdrew the signature of his party, Georgian Dream, from the EU-brokered agreement, while announcing at roughly the same time that an agreement between Georgia’s security services and those of Belarusian dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko had entered into force.

Garibishvili has been one of the main assailants killing Georgian democracy, but the mastermind is Ivanishvili. After Georgian Dream won in the 2012 parliamentary elections, he served for a year as prime minister and then stepped down to run the party until earlier this year, when he officially left that position. In reality, he still controls the ruling party, which is consolidating its power against democratic accountability, cozying up to Europe’s dictators, and abusing human rights.

Geographically, Georgia’s position as a key transit country for Caspian Sea energy en route to Europe makes it an enduring point of interest for Europe, the United States, and Russia. Long known as a promising democracy and contributor to Euro-Atlantic security, including by fighting with NATO in Afghanistan. Georgia has more recently played an important role in providing transit for those fleeing from Afghanistan. Georgia also has served as temporary haven for many who have been forced to flee Russia and other difficult places.

But Georgia itself is becoming one of those difficult places. Especially since 2019, when Georgian authorities and the Orthodox Church invited a controversial Russian parliamentarian to speak in the country’s parliament, Georgia has been steadily heading in a more corrupt, authoritarian, and even anti-Western direction.

Georgian officials spurned assistance from the EU and have criticized Western diplomats while warming up to their Russian counterparts. Border officials recently even denied entry to a key ally of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, apparently out of fear of provoking Putin. Several elections over the past few years have fallen short of democratic standards, despite Georgian Dream’s efforts to paint them as free and fair. Harassment of journalists and civil society has increased.

The West needs to step in and do so quickly. It should condemn in the strongest terms the treatment of Saakashvili and call for him to be released and returned to Ukraine. It should sanction those responsible for his mistreatment and target in particular Ivanishvili, who has caused damage to Georgian democracy that may take generations to rebuild. The United States should rescind its invitation to the Georgian government to participate in the upcoming virtual Summit for Democracy. Instead, in its place, it should invite representatives from civil society to represent the country.

The abuse of Saakashvili occurred shortly after high-level U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, visited Tbilisi. For this situation to deteriorate so quickly after his visit is an insult to the United States. The United States and the European Union have considerable influence in Georgia. It is well past time for them to act together and exercise it.

David J. Kramer

David J. Kramer served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor in the George W. Bush administration and is Director of European and Eurasian Studies and Senior Fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program on Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.