Georgia braces for unrest as ex-president Saakashvili arrested ahead of local elections

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Georgia is holding local elections on October 2 in a vote widely seen as a referendum on the ruling Georgian Dream party in the highly polarized South Caucasus country.

The vote was already set to be controversial before ex-exile president Mikheil Saakashvili returned on the eve of the elections to rally the opposition and call for protests, only to be arrested within hours.

Saakashvili, who was sentenced in absentia in 2018 and has lived in Ukraine for the past few years, announced earlier this week his intention to return home for the vote, despite the risk of jail, saying he wanted to help “save the country”.

The local elections come as the country has been going through a protracted political crisis since Georgian Dream won parliamentary elections last October, in a vote that opposition parties have called unfair and fraudulent. International observers said the vote was competitive and fundamental freedoms were generally respected.

Under an EU-brokered deal reached in April to defuse the crippling political crisis between Georgian Dream and opposition parties, early parliamentary elections were to be called in 2022 if Georgian Dream won less than 43% in local elections .

But in July, Georgian dream leader Irakli Kobakhidze canceled the so-called April 19 accord, blaming the opposition for its failure and saying most other key provisions had been met.

At the time, Kobakhidze said that small opposition parties signed the deal, but larger “radical opposition” blocs, including the main opposition movement, the United National Movement, refused. to join the agreement.

Most of the opposition see the vote for 64 municipal and municipal elections, including in the capital, Tbilisi, as a referendum on the Georgian dream to be used as leverage to demand early elections if the ruling party does not get more 43% of the vote. vote.

The arrest of Saakashvili, founder of the United National Movement, risks causing upheaval in a country struggling with political instability for years.

In a video posted to Facebook before his arrest, Saakashvili, who was stripped of his Georgian citizenship, called on his supporters to vote for the United National Movement or for smaller parties opposed to the Georgian dream.

“Everyone has to go to the polls and vote, and on October 3, we have to fill the Freedom Square (in the center of Tbilisi). If there are 100,000 people, no one can defeat us,” he said. it posted in the video.

“You see – I risked everything – my life, my freedom, everything, to come here. I only want one thing from you – to go to the polls,” he said.

Georgian President Salome Zourabishvili – Saakashvili’s longtime enemy – said in an October 1 statement that she “will never forgive” the former president, accusing him of trying to destabilize the country.

In a video posted later, she warned against the “spread of unrest” by urging citizens to vote peacefully and avoid conflict.

“The time for civil strife is over,” she said, adding that she stood alongside the citizens “not in any street or square, but rather on the side of constitutional order and justice. ‘peaceful future’.

Saakashvili has been a citizen of Ukraine since 2015 and heads the executive committee of the National Reform Council of Ukraine.

In recent years he has held several high-level government positions in Ukraine and was briefly governor of the Odessa region.

In 2018, he was sentenced in absentia to a total of nine years in prison after being found guilty of abuse of his authority in two separate cases relating to the attempt to conceal evidence related to the beating of a Member of Parliament from opposition in 2005 and the murder of a Georgian. banker.

With reports from the Georgian service of RFE / RL, Civil.ge, AFP and Reuters


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