Saakashvili: Georgia's flamboyant reformer

Tbilisi (AFP) –

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Georgia's ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili, who said Friday he had returned from exile despite the threat of arrest, is a larger-than-life reformer with an unorthodox political career.

Saakashvili, 53, is a divisive figure in his turbulent country -- supporters see him as the founding father of modern Georgia, but critics accuse him of authoritarian tendencies.

He rose to power by leading Georgia's peaceful "Rose Revolution" in 2003, ousting Communist-era elites.

The charismatic US-educated lawyer became a darling of the West, promising to turn a country wracked by more than a decade of political turmoil, civil war, endemic poverty and institutional corruption into a democratic success story.

In 2005, then-US president George W. Bush hailed Georgia as a "beacon of democracy," and the same year Saakashvili was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by then-US senators Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

When his second and last term ended in 2013, then-US president Barack Obama hailed his "great legacy," while current US President Joe Biden described him in 2012 as "the George Washington of Eastern Europe".

During his nine years at the helm, Saakashvili led an anti-graft crusade, reformed the corrupt police force, jailed crime kingpins, and rebuilt the country's crumbling infrastructure.

He introduced sweeping economic reforms that helped bring a more than threefold increase of per capita GDP.

But opponents criticised his rights record and described his rule -- which saw police crackdowns on anti-government protests and abuse of inmates in prisons -- as authoritarian.

- Self-imposed exile -

As tensions escalated in 2008 with Moscow over Georgia's ambitions to join NATO, Saakashvili sent in troops to seize the Moscow-sponsored breakaway region of South Ossetia, where separatist forces shelled Georgian villages.

Russia then struck with all of its military might, bombing targets across the country, occupying swathes of Georgia's territory, and defeating its small army in just five days.

The war cast a shadow over Georgia's long-term security and its NATO ambitions.

In 2012, Saakashvili conceded his party's electoral defeat to the Georgian Dream party led by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili -- in what was Georgia's first transfer of power through the ballot box.

He then went to a self-imposed exile in the United States where he taught governance at Boston's Tufts University.

He later moved to Ukraine to serve as the governor of the strategically important Odessa region, before falling out with then-president Petro Poroshenko and being stripped of his Ukrainian passport.

He was deported from the country but Ukraine's next president, Volodymyr Zelensky, restored his Ukrainian citizenship and appointed him to lead a government agency steering reforms.

Saakashvili was convicted in absentia on abuse of office charges in 2018 and sentenced to six years in prison. He denies any wrongdoing and says the case is politically motivated.

In recent years, Saakashvili positioned himself as an enemy of corrupt oligarchs whose "informal power suffocates what's left of democracy in Eastern Europe."