Georgia's “De-Georgianized" Ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili Vows a Comeback
As of December 4, there is one less Georgian and one more full-on Ukrainian out there. The indefatigable former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been stripped of his Georgian citizenship, but effectively keeps his job as Georgia’s long-distance opposition leader.
“They may take away my passport, but they can’t take away my being a Georgian,” Saakashvili said in a video posted on his Facebook page. Apparently speaking from Ukraine, where he serves as Odessa's regional governor, he claimed it was “Russian oligarch” Bidzina Ivanishvili, the former prime minister and founder of Georgia's ruling Georgian Dream coalition, who ordered his “incompetent, straw-grasping government” to cancel his passport, to prevent him from seeking elected office in Georgia.
Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili has indicated that he signed the decree scrapping his predecessor's Georgian citizenship in response to Saakashvili's May decision to become a Ukrainian citizen. Dual citizenship is not allowed under Georgian law, but the rule is not uniformly applied.
In 2011, Saakashvili himself stripped Ivanishvili of his Georgian citizenship once he announced plans to enter politics -- an irony not lost on many Georgians. Nonetheless, the businessman, a French citizen, went on to become prime minister under a temporary constitutional amendment.
Tbilisi's public displays of interest in Saakashvili's own citizenship increased after the publication of alleged recordings of the ex-president discussing using force to block any physical takeover of Rustavi2, the Georgian TV station most supportive of his political party, the United National Movement (UNM).
But, shorn of his citizenship, Misha’s got a news flash for his foes back home. “We will absolutely come back and, together, we shall all prevail,” he said.
The “we” first and foremost means his political base in Georgia, the UNM, now bereft of a leader after Saakashvili lost his Georgian citizenship. The party decided not to pick a replacement for Saakashvili, who founded the UNM back in 2001, and instead to govern the party, Georgia's largest opposition group, by a political council.
This could be an interesting gamble by the UNM ahead of the 2016 parliamentary elections. Saakashvili is variably seen as either a boon or a bane for the party's chances. Some of its sympathizers would like the group to move beyond Saakashvili and his tendency to dominate the stage, and form a compromise-based system of internal governance. Four UNM long-timers in May indicated that their decision to quit the party and launch a new political group was motivated by the UNM still taking orders from Saakashvili.
On the other hand, Saakashvili still has a powerful reputation locally as Mr. Fix It; someone who could brush aside bureaucracy and get the job done, be it fixing Georgia’s ailing roads or crime, both widespread running concerns.
Polls for now, though, suggest widespread ambivalence among Georgian voters.
In his video-talk, Saakashvili claimed that the decree removing his citizenship may prove the only way President Margvelashvili will "remain in Georgian history . .. if he remains in history at all.” But the question of how Saakashvili himself remains in Georgian history seems still too early ask.