TBILISI, Georgia — The election rally had all the trimmings: signs, crowds, cheers, chants. Everything, that is, except the party leader, former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili’s image was instead beamed from a giant screen to the gathering in the Black Sea port city Batumi on Oct. 16.

This is the closest any voters are able to get to Georgia’s former two-term president, who is running for the post of prime minister. Saakashvili is in self-exile working for Ukraine’s government, stripped of his Georgian citizenship and facing prison sentences for criminal convictions in the very country in which he hopes to make a political comeback.

It is a fittingly audacious gambit in Oct. 31 parliamentary elections, with their share of high drama and potentially big stakes for Georgia, which is wedged between Russia, NATO-member Turkey and the Black Sea.

Voters will decide whether to break the tight grip of the governing party, Georgian Dream, created by Georgia’s richest oligarch and the country’s de facto leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Also in the mix: worries about Russia’s reach in a country with NATO aspirations and carved up by two breakaway regions with ties to Moscow.

And then there’s what to do about Saakashvili if his United National Movement pulls off a come-from-behind win.

Briefly stateless

In 2015, he was stripped of his Georgian citizenship because he became a Ukrainian national to serve as governor of the Odessa region after his two terms as Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013. (At the time, Georgia did not allow dual citizenship.)

Then in 2017, Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, stripped Saakashvili of his Ukrainian nationality as part of a political feud, rendering Saakashvili briefly stateless. He got his Ukrainian passport back under Poroshenko’s successor, Volodymyr Zelensky, who appointed Saakashvili to head an advisory board — whose mission includes fighting the power of oligarchs in Ukraine.

In response, Georgia recalled its ambassador in Ukraine for consultations. There is still no Georgian ambassador in Kyiv.

In 2018, Saakashvili was convicted twice in absentia — and sentenced to a total of nine years in prison — in two cases that included charges of abuse of power and allegedly seeking to cover up a beating and a murder while president from 2004 to 2013. Saakashvili had denied the allegations, and his supporters have denounced the prosecution as politically motivated.

Georgian officials have not publicly commented on the legal implications if Saakashvili wins; the convictions and the old citizenship question remain as issues.

“They haven’t seen me in eight years and we interact only through a screen,” Saakashvili wrote in a Facebook post after the Batumi rally. He portrayed it as the biggest political gathering in the city’s history — a claim that, while its accuracy is unproved, offered a glimpse into Saakashvili’s bravado.

Rose from revolution

Saakashvili is no stranger to pulling off the unexpected.

In 2004, after leading the country’s pro-Western Rose Revolution a year earlier, he unseated Georgia’s entrenched leader, Eduard Shevardnadze, and was elected president with 96 percent of the vote.

Saakashvili’s reforms helped turn Georgia from a crime-ridden and corrupt post-Soviet state into one that has cracked down hard on petty corruption and developed credible institutions — with hopes of one day joining the European Union and NATO.

Yet Shakashvili’s political fortunes were in tatters by the end of his second term in 2013. A turning point was a disastrous war with Russia in 2008 in which Georgia lost control of the South Ossetia region, a takeover that is recognized only by Russia and a few other countries. A second breakaway Georgian region, Abkhazia, is also largely outside government control.

Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream moved in, defeating Saakashvili’s United National Movement in parliamentary elections. Saakhashvili’s second presidential term ended the next year.

Trailing in polls

Opinion polls show that Saakashvili may have a tough climb back.

Georgian Dream is given a lead in pre-election polling, with Saakashvili’s party in second place.

Ivanishvili, who served as prime minister from 2012 to 2013, laid the foundation for his fortune in the wild years after the Soviet Union’s collapse and is reputed to maintain business ties in Russia — leading some critics to suspect him of also having close ties to the Kremlin. Ivanishvili denies such links.

But last June, Georgian Dream invited a Russian lawmaker to speak in Georgia’s Parliament — the address was delivered in Russian from the speaker’s chair — prompting widespread demonstrations here in Georgia’s capital.

On Tuesday, Georgia was mentioned in a U.S. Justice Department indictment against six members of the Russian military intelligence unit the GRU for alleged high-profile cyberattacks around the world. In Georgia, suspected Russian hackers in 2019 tried to compromise the Parliament’s network and deface other websites, replacing their displays with photographs of Saakashvili and the words “I’ll be back.”

In August, a British-based organization owned by the exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkhovsky published an investigation alleging that the Kremlin is directly financing and handling the election campaign of a Georgian political party, the Alliance of Patriots. The party’s leader, Irma Inashvili, denied the reports.

“Russia is actively using its proxy political forces and other far-right groups to spread fake news and to sow instability in the public and split the society for the purpose of achieving their desired result — to destabilize Georgia,” Eka Gigauri, the director of Transparency International Georgia, told The Washington Post.

“The government has unfortunately not taken any action in this regard,” she added.

The battle between Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream and Saakashvili’s UNM also touches on the recently rekindled war in neighboring Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave populated by mostly ethnic Armenians within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan.

Though Georgia maintains it is neutral, Saakashvili took sides and declared that the enclave is Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory.

Coronavirus's rise

But by far the biggest electoral factor so far is the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling Georgian Dream’s popularity increased amid the country’s initially effective management of the outbreak. But cases are rising fast — from 19 deaths and 1,510 total infections on Sept. 1 to 158 deaths and nearly 20,000 total infections as of Oct. 21.

The economic consequences of harsh lockdown measures earlier this year are becoming evident in the soaring unemployment rate and the depreciation of the Georgian currency, the lari, to a record low.

Georgia’s public defender, Nino Lomjaria, decried Saakashvili’s Batumi rally as “totally irresponsible” for gathering thousands of people, some of whom did not wear masks or maintain social distancing, in a region that recently had the highest number of infections in the country.

Meanwhile, smaller parties are hoping to benefit from voter disenchantment with the choice between Georgian Dream’s continuing in power and Saakashvili’s bid to return.

“Punch Bidzina, Elbow Misha!” is the slogan of the European Georgia party, using Saakashvili’s nickname.