Georgia: Detained ex-leader Saakashvili says ‘freedom’ at stake in local elections

Voters in Georgia go to the polls Saturday for local elections that will have a decisive national impact, a day after the arrest of former …

Voters in Georgia go to the polls Saturday for local elections that will have a decisive national impact, a day after the arrest of former President Mikheil Saakashvili following his return from exile.

The arrest of the main opposition leader has significantly boosted turnout in what is seen as a test for the ruling Georgian Dream party, which is increasingly unpopular in the South Caucasus.

“I would like to ask you all to go to the polls so that not a single vote is lost,” Saakashvili tweeted in English from prison on Saturday, posting a photo of a letter to his supporters. “My freedom and, above all, the freedom of Georgia depends entirely on your actions and your ability to fight.”

The 53-year-old founder of the United National Movement (UNM), a charismatic, pro-Western reformer, served as Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013.

Before his arrest Friday, he called via video on supporters to protest in this weekend’s elections and “save Georgia.” He also urged them to rally Sunday along a main route through the capital, Tbilisi.

He announced his return from Ukraine to the country he left in 2013 via Facebook, saying, “I risked my life and freedom to return!”

The government had warned him that if he returned he would be immediately arrested, as he was wanted for “abuse of power.” In 2018, he was sentenced to six years in prison for contempt of court. Saakashvili argues that the case against him is politically motivated.

His arrest was announced Friday by Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili. According to reports in Georgian media, he is being held in Roustavi prison near Tbilisi.

Georgia has been plunged into a political crisis since last year after the opposition denounced massive fraud in parliamentary elections, which the ruling party narrowly won.

The local elections are being followed closely for any sign of democratic infringement by Georgian Dream in the nation well used to political instability.

In power since 2012, Georgian Dream, founded by the billionaire businessman and politician Bidzina Ivanishvili. The country’s richest man, he has been accused by his critics of using criminal charges to silence his opponents as well as journalists.

Interpol has refused Tbilisi’s demands to publish a “red notice” — issued for fugitives wanted either for prosecution or to serve a sentence — against Saakashvili.

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