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Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili has been arrested after returning from eight years of self-imposed exile, the country’s prime minister said on Friday, a move likely to deepen political turmoil in the south Caucasus nation.
Prime minister Irakli Garibashvili, whose Georgian Dream party ousted Saakashvili from office in 2013, said the former president was arrested in Tbilisi, the capital, after a clandestine trip from Ukraine.
Saakashvili had said this week that he would return to Georgia, despite the almost certain threat of arrest after he was convicted on two abuse of power charges that he has described as politically motivated.
In videos published on Friday morning, Saakashvili strolled around a tree-lined boulevard in the Black Sea city of Batumi, urging his followers to oust Georgian Dream in Saturday’s local elections.
The circumstances of Saakashvili’s arrest were not immediately clear. Georgian authorities initially denied that he was in the country before pictures of a handcuffed Saakashvili, smiling as police escorted him from a building, were shown on state TV.
Garibashvili said Georgian law enforcement officials had picked a place and time to arrest Saakashvili “so as to rule out obstructing factors”.
Beka Basilaia, a lawyer for Saakashvili, confirmed the news of his arrest, telling a Ukrainian news station it was politically motivated.
Georgia, a mountainous nation of under 4m people, was once considered an example of how post-Soviet countries could reform and move towards the west. It is now in a political crisis amid a stand-off between the billionaire-backed ruling party and Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
United National Movement has called on its supporters to turn out in numbers against Georgian Dream. The ruling party will be forced to hold snap elections next year if it gets less than 43 per cent of the vote in Saturday’s municipal contests.
Ukraine said it was seeking clarity on the arrest of Saakashvili, who has taken Ukrainian citizenship and has a role advising the country’s president Volodymyr Zelensky.
Zelensky “is concerned about such news . . . Ukraine appeals to the Georgian side to clarify all the circumstances and reasons for such a step against a Ukrainian citizen”, said Serhiy Nykyforov, spokesperson for Ukraine’s president.
Saakashvili has had a topsy-turvy political career since he ousted his predecessor on an anti-corruption platform in 2003’s Rose Revolution.
He initially won plaudits for his success in rooting out graft and pleasing western donors with liberal economic reforms. But his appeal waned for Georgian voters.
After years of championing Georgia’s drive to join the EU and Nato, he also lost credibility in the eyes of many western allies when he presided over defeat in a disastrous four-day war with Russia in 2008.
Georgian Dream’s founder Bidzina Ivanishvili, an eccentric, reclusive billionaire who made a fortune in Russia in the 1990s, ousted Saakashvili’s party from power in 2012’s parliamentary elections.
Saakashvili left the country a year later once his term expired and moved to Ukraine, where he sold his experience fighting corruption and fending off pressure from Moscow as an asset to its post-revolutionary government.
Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president from 2014 to 2019 and Saakashvili’s university classmate, granted him citizenship and made him a provincial governor before the two men fell out.
He was stripped of his citizenship and expelled from Ukraine but under Zelensky he regained his Ukrainian citizenship and took on a role advising the government on reforms.
Davit Sakvarelidze, a close confidant, said on Ukrainian television on Friday that Saakashvili “wanted to step into the battle” in Georgia.