Time Running Out for the West To Save Mikheil Saakashvili

The life of Georgia’s former president, who worked tirelessly to promote democratic values, depends on President Biden and the other leaders of the free world.

Irakli Gedenidze/pool via AP, file
The former Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, at a court hearing at Tbilisi, Georgia, December 2, 2021. Irakli Gedenidze/pool via AP, file

There is alarming news coming from Georgia. The conditions of the imprisonment of the former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, are harsh enough to put his very life in danger. It is not too much to say that his life may depend on President Biden and the other leaders of the free world to do everything they can on behalf of this man who worked tirelessly to promote democratic values and resist Russian imperialism.  

Mr. Saakashvili has always been a champion of universal human values, a stalwart ally to the West and America, and a critic of Russian hegemony over the former Soviet republics.  As the third President of Georgia, he led the country through a transformation that in a span of only several years turned Georgia into one of the least corrupt countries in the world, as recognized by Transparency International.

After only months in power, President Saakashvili was praised by leaders in Europe and America for championing democracy and free markets and ending a period of de facto control of his country by organized crime groups. Recognizing the success of a western-oriented approach and fearing a loss of influence over the former Soviet republics, President Putin of Russia ordered the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and after a brief war, Russia occupied 20 percent of the country, which it continues to hold to this day.

At the time, Mr. Saakashvili warned of Mr. Putin’s imperialist ambitions, but few in the West wanted to believe him and did not take his warnings seriously. It is reasonable to believe that if the West had mobilized to stop the imperialist ambitions of Mr. Putin, then we would not have to face the barbaric aggression of Russia in Ukraine today. Mr. Saakashvili oversaw the first peaceful electoral change of power in Georgia by ceding power to his political rivals.

Mr. Saakashvili stepped down as a leader of the country in 2013, in accordance with the constitutional limits the implementation of which he himself had overseen and respecting the will of the Georgian electorate. Unfortunately, his political rival was a billionaire Russian oligarch, who has remained in power behind the scenes in Georgia since 2013. He vengefully sought to prosecute dozens of members of Mr. Saakashvili’s outgoing government and brought a number of politically-motivated charges against Mr. Saakashvili himself.

Mr. Saakashvili was tried and convicted in absentia. He is now in detention in Georgia for these purported crimes. According to leading medical experts from around the world, there is a high possibility that Mr. Saakashvili has been subjected to torture and possible poisoning at the hands of the Georgian government, which is widely understood to be heavily influenced by the Kremlin.   

I first met Mr. Saakashvili in 2004. He had recently come to power as Georgia’s third president through the peaceful Rose Revolution and was visiting Israel, attempting to strengthen ties between the newly independent country and the state of Israel. As a member of the Cabinet, I was asked by my prime minister to meet Mr. Saakashvili at the airport and to accompany him to Jerusalem.

We had a fascinating 45-minute conversation during the car ride and discussed topics of mutual interest. I told him about my connection with the first president of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. I was a founding member of the Moscow Helsinki group, monitoring violations of human rights in the Soviet Union. Gamsakhurdia became the head of the Georgian Helsinki Group, following our example.

We met in Moscow in 1976, when I tried to help him to meet foreign journalists. When we all were arrested in 1977, he was the first to repent and was used by the KGB against his comrades in order to avoid imprisonment. Mr. Saakashvili showed extreme interest in this story, as if he was preparing himself for future struggles when he would have to fight for freedom and democracy against totalitarian interests.  

At the same time, Mr. Saakashvili impressed me with his comments about Iran, which he had recently visited. “It reminds me of the Soviet Union in its last years of existence” he said. And seeing my surprised look he hurried to explain: “Officially everybody curses America, but off the record, everybody admires America.” He saw this common double-thinking as the sign of coming change. His understanding of the nature of revolution was very similar to mine. I often quoted his remarks about Iran.

Unfortunately, when five years later the people of Iran crossed the line between double-think and dissent and started revolution, the free world let them down. Today, as Ukrainian people are fighting for their freedom against the aggression of Mr. Putin, it is critically important that he be stopped.

If the United States and its allies let Mikheil Saakashvili die in the coming days in prison, it will encourage the Russian dictator, for Mr. Saakashvili was the first leader who stood in the way of his imperialist ambitions. Mikheil Saakashvili is more than a symbol of Western values; he is a friend of democracy and progress, and America and its allies should do everything they can to ensure that his life is saved.    


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