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Former Georgian 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 that could exacerbate political unrest in the southern Caucasus country.
Prime minister Iraqi Garibashvili, whose Georgian Dream party Saakashvili stepped down in 2013 said the former president was arrested in Tbilisi, the capital, after a clandestine trip from Ukraine.
Saakashvili said this week that he would return to Georgia, despite the almost certain threat of arrest after being convicted of two abuses of power that he described as politically motivated.
In videos released Friday morning, Saakashvili walked around a tree-lined boulevard in the Black Sea city of Batumi, urging his followers to oust Georgian Dream during Saturday’s local elections.
The circumstances of Saakashvili’s arrest were not immediately clear. Georgian authorities initially denied he was in the country before photos of a handcuffed Saakashvili, smiling as police escorted him out of a building, were shown on state television.
Garibashvili said Georgian law enforcers had chosen a place and time to arrest Saakashvili “to rule out obstacles”.
Beka Basilaia, a Saakashvili lawyer, confirmed the news of his arrest and told a Ukrainian news station that he was politically motivated.
Georgia, a mountainous nation of less than 4 million people, was once considered an example of how post-Soviet countries could reform and move west. It is now in a political crisis amid a rift between the ruling party backed by the billionaire and Saakashvili’s United National Movement.
United National Movement has called on its supporters to act in numbers against Georgian Dream. The ruling party will be obliged to hold immediate elections next year if it gets less than 43 percent of the vote in Saturday’s municipal elections.
Ukraine said it was seeking clarification on the arrest of Saakashvili, who had taken Ukrainian citizenship and a role advising the President of the country, Volodymyr Zelensky.
Zelensky “is concerned about such news. . . “Ukraine calls on the Georgian side to explain all the circumstances and reasons for such a move against a Ukrainian citizen,” said Serhiy Nykyforov, a spokesman for the President of Ukraine.
Saakashvili has had a tumultuous political career since ousting his predecessor on an anti-corruption platform in the 2003 Rose Revolution.
He initially received praise for his success in eradicating graft and satisfying Western donors with liberal economic reforms. But its appeal has diminished for Georgian voters.
After years of striving for Georgia to join the EU and NATO, he also lost credibility in the eyes of many Western allies when he presented the defeat in a disastrous four-day war with Russia in 2008.
The founder of Georgian Dream Bidzina Ivanishvili, an eccentric, isolated billionaire who earned a fortune in Russia in the 1990s, ousted Saakashvili’s party during the 2012 parliamentary elections.
Saakashvili left the country a year later after his term expired and moved to Ukraine, where he sold his experience in fighting corruption and repelling pressure from Moscow as an asset to his post-revolutionary government.
Petro Poroshenko, the president of Ukraine from 2014 to 2019 and Saakashvili’s classmate at the university, granted him citizenship and made him a provincial governor before the two men dropped out.
He was deprived of his citizenship and expelled from Ukraine, but under Zelensky he regained his Ukrainian citizenship and assumed a role advising the government on reforms.
Davit Sakvarelidze, a close confidante, said on Ukrainian television on Friday that Saakashvili “wanted to fight” in Georgia.