BATUMI, Georgia— Fourteen years ago a group of protesters burst through the doors of the Georgian Parliament while Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze was giving a speech. Shevardnadze was a legendary Soviet foreign minister, but under his tenure Georgia had become a failing state rife with corruption.
The protesters carried no weapons. Instead they held out roses as a sign theirs was a peaceful revolution. They were led by a charismatic young idealist and reformer named Mikheil Saakashvili.
As Shevardnadze’s guards escorted him out the back, Saakashvili ascended the podium and, in what later came to seem an omen, downed the former leader’s glass of tea in a single gulp.
Saakashvili was elected president shortly after and began to reform and modernize Georgia at what to many was an unsettling pace. His reforms, though based on free market ideas, supposedly à la Ronald Reagan, often seemed more like Machiavellian machinations.
Still, Saakashvili became a darling of the West. For a decade “Misha” Saakashvili was promoted at home and abroad as a paradigm for the kind of democracy that America was attempting to export to the nations of the former Soviet Union.
But after almost a decade, and a disastrous war with Russia, it’s fair to say the bloom was off the Rose Revolution, and in late 2012 Saakashvili lost power to a Georgian billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili.
Today Saakashvili is hated by the current Georgian government almost as much as he is hated by Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, who told French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the 2008 fighting, “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls.”
Legend brings us various versions of Saakashvili’s response on hearing of that remark. One is that the impetuous Misha retorted with the schoolyard taunt that at least he had balls. Another claims the Georgia president said Putin would need a very long rope. In still another version he supposedly (and improbably) used a favorite pun he often repeated in private. Putin he said, was Lilliputin, alluding to the buff Russian’s diminutive stature. (Saakashvili is about 6’4”; Putin not quite 5’7”.)
But like so many exaggerated historical legends, it seems that Saakashvili’s response was pretty simple: nervous laughter. And with reason. Putin made that threat while his troops waited 25 miles from the Georgian capital.
I spent nearly two years working for Misha Saakashvili and saw the visionary best and venal worst of the man. If hypocrisy is the cardinal sin of politics, he surely must be damned. He allowed too many around him to enrich themselves. He abused his own power. He is now a wanted man in his native country.
Today this figure, who once seemed to me larger than life, is stateless and adrift in Donald Trump’s Washington D.C., and as it happens, Vice President Mike Pence has just been in Tbilisi.
According to our sources, over the course of the last week or so, the Georgians have been petitioning Pence to help them bring Saakashvili back here to be prosecuted.
In 2015, burned out in Georgia, Saakashvili gave up his citizenship there and took Ukrainian citizenship the day before President Petro Poroshenko appointed him governor of the strategically crucial and notoriously rotten port city of Odessa. The ever-quixotic Saakashvili, the great reformer-to-be, first turned against Ukraine’s oligarchs, then against Poroshenko himself. Perhaps Saakashvili decided that this time he wasn’t going to comprise. Whatever the case, Saakashvili failed and went into opposition. Odessa remains as corrupt as ever.
After Poroshenko’s first official visit to Georgia last month, on July 17, he stripped Saakashvili of his last remaining citizenship. Saakashvili was in the United States at the time and remains there.
Why the U.S.?
On Monday, as Pence’s team arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia's minister of justice, Tea Tsulukiani, went on Georgia's largest television network to reiterate publicly Georgia’s demand for Saakashvili's extradition from Ukraine to Georgia, even though he’s in the States.
In fact, it appears Poroshenko doesn’t want Saakashvili back in Ukraine at all, whether to prosecute or extradite him, and the timing of the announcement invalidating his passport was calculated carefully. According to the Kyiv Post, “On July 24, Poroshenko reshuffled the Commission on Citizenship in what critics saw as preparation for the suspension of Saakashvili’s citizenship.” Two days later Saakashvili was stripped of his citizenship.
Had Poroshenko acted earlier, the politically savvy Saakashvili might have made a drama out of his “escape” from Ukraine, arriving in D.C. and appearing on cable news as a kind of hero exiled by a corrupt regime. With Saakashvili already in the U.S., Misha had less opportunity for Rose-Revolution-style grandstanding: no flowers, no planes to exit, no reporters to greet him. He just woke up in the U.S. to some bad news.
“America is not Georgia or Ukraine, and Misha cannot just be bundled into a plane on a presidential whim,” says veteran analyst William Dunbar.
But that may be a false sense of security. Two high-ranking members of the United States Armed Forces, who requested to remain anonymous, told The Daily Beast that over a week ago Georgian officials began lobbying Mike Pence to extradite Mikheil Saakashvili.
What the defense officials found most unusual was that the Georgians approached the U.S. vice president about the extradition of Saakashvili back to Georgia two days before his Ukrainian citizenship was revoked on July 24. This is the same day that Poroshenko reshuffled his Commission on Citizenship to expedite Saakashvili’s extradition while Saakashvili was in the U.S.
As an opposition figure in Ukraine, Saakashvili was a thorn in Poroshenko’s side. He was calling more and more attention to the country’s corrupt oligarchs leading up to the 2019 Ukrainian presidential elections.
A big question now is how much did the Russians know and when?
The Kremlin did not appear to want to kill him, much less hang him literally by the balls. The Russian strategy for him has been to destroy the former Georgian president’s legacy, his credibility, and finally his dignity. So far, with help from him, it’s working.
The Exile Factor
Statelessness is exile of the truest kind. And Mikheil Saakashvili deserves a fair trial, but he will not find that in Georgia. The recent case of the Azeri dissident and journalist Efqan Muxtarli shows clearly the disrespect for legal procedures and human rights. Muxtarli was abducted near his home in Tbilisi in broad daylight on May 29. He turned up in custody in Baku, Azerbaijan the next day.
If the Trump administration extradites Saakashvili back to Tbilisi, Russian authorities would go to great lengths to get their hands on him. Such a move would send the wrong message to every dictator and thug within a thousand miles: If it can happen to Saakashvili; it can happen to anybody.
As I type I’m looking out at the Batumi skyline, and reminded of the part of Saakashvili that was a great man. This place was once a corrupt fiefdom ruled by gangsters and polluted by a Soviet oil refinery. People did not go outside at night, unless they were part of its ruler Aslan Abashidze’s clan—who waved Ak-47s and raced Ferraris on the boulevards of what is now a bustling seaside resort.
Today Batumi, a “jewel” of the Black Sea coast, is a symbol of many things for its many neighbors. In midsummer, Batumi and Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, are full of Persian, Arabic, Turkish and, yes, Russian tourists seeking refuge in a place where they can live freely, voice their ideas, and pursue happiness without fear of authoritarianism—unless of course they are Azeri dissidents.
This modern multicultural Georgia is Mikheil Saakashvili’s legacy.
Yet Vladmir Putin is only Saakashvili’s second greatest enemy; the first is himself. Putin realized this in 2008 when, after relentless military provocations, Saakashvili took the bait and gave Putin grounds to invade the country and nearly take the capital. This was the low point in Saakashvili’s career, until now.
Stateless Misha has few friends left at home after his Georgian political party, UNM, split in January. Many of UNM’s most influential members got fed up with him, broke away and formed a new party.
The lights of Batumi glow ever brighter, and Tbilisi’s TV Broadcasting Tower, once a symbol of Soviet media domination and oppression still flickers luminously. Georgians remain in a mostly free and reformed country, which a flawed man often brutally modernized, as it were, in a single gulp.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that it was here in Batumi that in 2012 Donald Trump, the faux investor lending his name to a project, and Mikheil Saakashvili shook hands after cutting a $250 million deal to add a Trump Tower to the brilliant lights of the skyline.
The deal would no doubt have made a lot of people wealthy, but Trump pulled out for good just before his inauguration.
For Misha in the day the biggest payoff was the photo, the money shot, if you will, of him and the Donald shaking hands with Batumi at their back. Saakashvili put the photo everywhere. A massive billboard bearing the image of Trump’s and Misha’s handshake was the first thing you saw upon exiting the airport—the exact place where Saakashvili will be arrested if he is sent home.