Zelensky: Georgia should send ex-leader to Ukraine after alarming video


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is demanding that the pro-West former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili — who is in jail for abuse of office charges he denies — be sent to Ukraine for urgent medical care.

Zelensky claimed without evidence that Moscow, via the government of Georgia — where Saakashvili served as president until 2013 — was “killing” the former leader after video emerged of him looking emaciated this week. Moscow has not commented on the recent allegations but has previously dismissed any involvement with Saakashvili as “the theater of the absurd.”

Saakashvili, in an op-ed in Politico in April, said he is now “dying” and has been “systematically tortured, physically and psychologically, and there is currently evidence of heavy metal poisoning in my body. I now suffer from a bewildering array of over 20 serious illnesses, all of which developed in confinement.” Calling himself a political prisoner, he obliquely blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for his “current predicament” without giving details.

It’s unclear why Zelensky, who has long sought the transfer of Saakashvili — a Ukrainian citizen — is dialing up his accusations now. Tbilisi has said Saakashvili is receiving medical care and is not a political prisoner.

Georgia, a former Soviet state, has treaded a fine line since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Its ruling Georgian Dream party has close ties with Moscow and has refused to impose economic sanctions on the Kremlin, but its people have protested in solidarity with Ukraine and against what many say is growing authoritarianism in their country.

Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili told The Post on Tuesday via a spokeswoman that any issue dividing Georgia and Ukraine “can only play in the hands of our common foe and therefore should be avoided,” adding that she had deep “regret” for the deterioration of diplomatic relations with Ukraine.

“I have stated repeatedly that Saakashvili’s issue should be handled with full respect of his rights to a proper treatment but should not be used for fueling a campaign that again can only benefit and be exploited by Russia,” she added. Here’s what to know.

Who is Mikheil Saakashvili?

Saakashvili, 55, served as Georgia’s president from 2004 to 2013. He swept to power through the Rose Revolution, a pro-democratic movement that ousted the president. Saakashvili was then elected to office with 96 percent of the vote in 2004. Educated in the United States, Saakashvili won influence in Washington and the West while in power and had aspirations for the former Soviet nation to join the European Union and NATO.

In office, he and Putin had widely reported personal animosity after a brief, disastrous war with Russia in 2008, in which Tbilisi lost control of its South Ossetia region. Russia’s takeover has been legally recognized only by a few other countries.

After serving two terms, Saakashvili moved abroad in 2013, in a self-imposed exile in the United States and Europe during which he was hounded by allegations of corruption and warrants for his arrest. He became a Ukrainian citizen in 2o15, giving up his citizenship in Georgia, which at the time did not allow dual citizenship. He briefly served as governor of the southern region of Odessa, in a period when many Georgians were sympathetic to pro-democracy movements in Ukraine, before he quit.

He was stripped of that citizenship in 2017 by former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko as part of a political feud and deported to Poland. Zelensky, Poroshenko’s successor, restored it in 2019 and appointed him to head an advisory board fighting the power of oligarchs in Ukraine, as The Washington Post previously reported.

Why is Saakashvili in jail?

Saakashvili was convicted in 2018 in absentia to a six-year prison term for abuse of power while in office. He denies the charges, which he says are politically motivated. He was arrested after returning to Georgia to support local elections in October 2021, ending his eight-year exile. Human Rights Watch says the trial occurred outside of international legal standards.

In February, the European Parliament approved a resolution 577-33 calling on Tbilisi to release Saakashvili, noting that his “health has continued to deteriorate” and that he had “lost a substantial amount of weight.” It added that “continuing failure to improve the situation” of Saakashvili represented a “blow” to Georgia’s international reputation and would “hamper its European Union candidacy prospects.”

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What happened to Saakashvili in jail?

The resolution noted that the former president went on hunger strikes while in jail but that some of his medical symptoms were “consistent with heavy metal poisoning while in detention, contributing to his rapidly declining health.”

Saakashvili attended a court appearance via videoconference Monday where he lifted his shirt to reveal a gaunt torso to the camera.

Despite his changed appearance, he said he felt “spiritually fit,” and a statement on his official social media accounts later said he wanted to live “to watch and participate in the eventual collapse of the Russian Empire.”

In February, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused Georgia’s government of denying the former president “adequate medical care, putting him at grave risk of death,” in a joint statement. They said two independent medical teams had concluded that Saakashvili “has developed a number of life-threatening health conditions while in custody” and lost more than 110 pounds while in jail.

Georgian authorities previously told rights groups that Saakashvili’s health has deteriorated as a result of “self-harm” caused by several hunger strikes and said that he is receiving adequate medical care.

What has Zelensky said about Saakashvili?

Following the court video, Zelensky called for Saakashvili to be immediately transferred to Kyiv. In a nightly public address Monday, he blamed the Kremlin for what he termed Saakashvili’s “demonstrative execution.”

“The world once again saw how the Kremlin — unfortunately, at the hands of the current Georgian government — is killing Ukrainian citizen Mykhailo Saakashvili,” Zelensky said, using an alternate spelling. “Human life is the highest value, and we cannot allow Mykhailo to be simply killed.”

Zelensky called on European governments to “save this man” and on Tbilisi to transfer him to Kyiv for “the necessary treatment and care.”

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Zelensky also said he had instructed Ukraine’s foreign minister to summon Georgia’s ambassador to Ukraine on Tuesday “to express our protest.” He would also give him 48 hours to leave Ukraine to “hold consultations with his capital” regarding the issue.

Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, posted on Telegram that the summoned Georgian ambassador would face a “tough conversation” as he also called for Saakashvili’s return.

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has called for Saakashvili’s release on health grounds and for the Biden administration to put more pressure on Tbilisi.

Georgia’s and Russia’s foreign ministries did not immediately respond to requests from The Post.

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Inna Lazareva contributed to this report.

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