The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Once hailed as a reformer, Mikheil Saakashvili languishes in prison

A rally in support of Georgia's imprisoned former president, Mikheil Saakashvili, on Feb. 20, in Tbilisi, Georgia. (Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters)
3 min

More than a decade ago, Mikheil Saakashvili carried influence in Washington and Georgia, the former Soviet republic he led as president. He rose to power on the shoulders of the 2003 Rose Revolution, which swept aside a corrupt and stagnant regime. Mr. Saakashvili met with Joe Biden in Georgia when Mr. Biden was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later when he was vice president. In 2012, when seeing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Batumi, Mr. Saakashvili declared that “Georgia was closer than ever” to fulfilling its aspirations to join the European Union and NATO.

Now, Mr. Saakashvili is imprisoned in Georgia, his health deteriorating, and the goals of European integration are slipping away. On Feb. 15, the European Parliament approved a resolution 577-33 calling on the authorities in Georgia to release him and warning that his case “is a litmus test for the Georgian government’s commitment to European values and its declared European aspirations, including E.U. candidate status.”

Mr. Saakashvili is a charismatic and polarizing figure, often intolerant of criticism. But he and a band of reformers modernized the economy, greatly reduced corruption and attracted billions in foreign investment. Georgia’s progress was disrupted when Russia launched an invasion in 2008, a punitive strike intended to blunt the small nation’s affinity for democracy and its desire to join NATO. But Mr. Saakashvili demonstrated a commitment to democratic values when he transferred power peacefully after his party lost an election in 2012.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his disdain for Mr. Saakashvili, once reportedly snapping that the Georgian should be “hung by his balls.” As a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul noted recently in our pages, a successful democracy in Georgia or Ukraine was anathema to everything Mr. Putin stood for. “Putin feared the color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine precisely because they threatened the legitimacy and stability of his autocracy in Russia,” Mr. McFaul wrote.

Press Enter to skip to end of carousel
Also on the Editorial Board’s agenda
  • Biden has a new border plan.
  • The United States should keep the pressure on Nicaragua.
  • America’s fight against inflation isn’t over.
  • The Taliban has doubled down on the repression of women.
  • The world’s ice is melting quickly.
The Department of Homeland Security has provided details of a plan to prevent a migrant surge along the southern border. The administration would presumptively deny asylum to migrants who failed to seek it in a third country en route — unless they face “an extreme and imminent threat” of rape, kidnapping, torture or murder. Critics allege that this is akin to an illegal Trump-era policy. In fact, President Biden is acting lawfully in response to what was fast becoming an unmanageable flow at the border. Read our most recent editorial on the U.S. asylum system.
Some 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners left that Central American country for the United States in February. President Daniel Ortega released and sent them into exile in a single motion. Nevertheless, it appears that Mr. Ortega let them go under pressure from economic sanctions the United States imposed on his regime when he launched a wave of repression in 2018. The Biden administration should keep the pressure on. Read recent editorials about the situation in Nicaragua.
Inflation remains stubbornly high at 6.4 percent in January. The Federal Reserve’s job is not done in this fight. More interest rate hikes are needed. Read a recent editorial about inflation and the Fed.
Afghanistan’s rulers had promised that barring women from universities was only temporary. But private universities got a letter on Jan. 28 warning them that women are prohibited from taking university entrance examinations. Afghanistan has 140 private universities across 24 provinces, with around 200,000 students. Out of those, some 60,000 to 70,000 are women, the AP reports. Read a recent editorial on women’s rights in Afghanistan.
A new study finds that half the world’s mountain glaciers and ice caps will melt even if global warming is restrained to 1.5 degrees Celsius — which it won’t be. This would feed sea-level rise and imperil water sources for hundreds of millions. Read a recent editorial on how to cope with rising seas, and another on the policies needed to fight climate change.


End of carousel

Mr. Saakashvili’s rule was followed by that of the Georgia Dream party, created by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who served for a year as prime minister, and still wields power in the republic. Mr. Ivanishvili’s government tilts toward Mr. Putin and has weakened Georgia’s civil society and democracy. Mr. Saakashvili spent a period in Ukraine as governor of the Odessa region — he went to school there — but returned to Georgia in 2021, where he was arrested on politically motivated charges that he had abused his office. He has been in prison ever since, enduring beatings and a dramatic loss of weight, as well as fighting dementia and muscle atrophy.

Mr. Saakashvili once greeted Mr. Biden in Georgia as “my dear friend.” Now is the moment for Mr. Biden to reciprocate and demand his release. Mr. Saakashvili should be allowed to seek medical help abroad. If he perishes in prison, it likely would also be a death knell of Georgia’s quest to join Europe — and a triumph for Mr. Putin, consigning Georgia’s population of 3.7 million to many more years of authoritarian rule.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).