The decision of Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili to strip former President Mikhail Saakashvili of his citizenship can only be understood in the broader context of Georgian politics, both with regards to events during the 2012 election and to the political journey of Saakashvili during the time since his party’s defeat at the hands of the Georgian Dream (GD) in 2012. In 2012, GD leader Bidzina Ivanishvili was controversially stripped of his citzenship by Saakashvili because he, Ivanishvili, also held French citizenship. Thus, there is precedent for this kind of thing in recent Georgian political life. However, it is very unlikely President Margvelashvili made this decision because he wanted to even the score between the two former political rivals. Margvelashvili, as most people know, has been feuding with Ivanishvili almost since becoming president, so it is not likely loyalty to his former political patron was behind Margvelashvili’s decision.
It is more likely, that the current President’s reasons for stripping his predecessor’s citizenship are the ones that Margvelashvili has stated. “From the political point of view, the fact that Saakashvili said no to Georgian citizenship deserves to be assessed toughly – by doing so Georgia’s former president has actually insulted the presidency, as well as our country.” This statement by Margvelashvili concedes that his decision was a political one, but driving that decision was Saakashvili’s willingness to quickly take on Ukrainian citizenship, and unilaterally renounce his Georgian citizenship, so that he could take new job. President Margvelashvili’s decision to strip Saakashvili of his citizenship is, in also many respects, a minor act, more formalizing Saakashvili’s choices than aggressively seeking to restrict the former President.
A former President losing the citizenship he has already essentially renounced is not, on its own, a very interesting story. What makes this story interesting is not Margvelashvili’s actions, or even his possible motivations. Rather it is Saakashvili’s reaction that is notable and relevant to the future of Georgia. Not surprisingly, the former President was upset and angry about this decision, although it was more or less a natural outgrowth of his own decision to take a very senior position in the Ukrainian government. Saakashvili did an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in which he made that point very clearly.
Two comments from the RFE/RL interview, taken together, reveal some interesting things about how the former President sees himself and this situation. "No one can strip me of my unlimited love for Georgia,” and “Today, me and my friends are serving the Georgian cause; we are serving Georgia's future (by working in Ukraine)…Our common future. That's why they can take away my passport but nobody can deprive me of my Georgianness.” It is very likely that Saakashvili honestly believes both these things, but perhaps the former President doth protest too much. It is also likely that he does not realize how taken together they are if not quite contradictory than at least a rationalization based on somewhat flimsy logic.
The former President’s argument is that he loves Georgia so much that at this moment, which he has consistently defined as a profound crisis for Georgia, he can best serve his country by being governor of Odessa in Ukraine. There is some logic to Saakashvili being outside the country because he faces possible arrest if he returns, but by dedicating his efforts to bringing and reform and good governance to Odessa, a significant and worthy cause to be sure, it is very hard to believe that the former President continues to see Georgia as his top priority. This not altogether unreasonable, but it demonstrates the inconsistency of his argument. Saakashvili’s decision to take the position as Governor of Odessa may be a good for Ukraine, and is certainly a smart career move for the former President, but it is clear evidence that, at least for now, Georgia is no longer his top priority.
On balance, however, these comments are rather standard fare and what might be expected from somebody who caught between patriotism and career, gave up his passport to pursue the latter. Saakashvili’s efforts to shift the blame to Margvelashvili for formalizing a decision that he, Saakachvili, had already made are to be expected, and probably a strategically smart move given the, admittedly unusual, and perhaps unprecedented context.
The rest of Saakashvili’s comments are more puzzling, revealing and significant. Somewhat unprompted the form President stated added “(w)e will definitely return and we will definitely win together.” This remark raises several questions. First, who is the “we” to which he is referring. It cannot be the UNM, because the UNM never really left. They stayed in Georgia and despite a collapse of public support following the 2012 election, and arrests of several of their top leaders, remained active in Georgian politics as a small but well organized and vocal minority in the parliament and in society more broadly. Perhaps the “we” to which Saakashvili was referring was him and the other Georgians who went to Ukraine to work. That raises the question of what they are doing in Ukraine if they are so focused on winning in Georgia.
An additional source of ambiguity is the word “return.” It is not clear whether the former President means return to power or return to Georgia. If it is the former, that assertion might be dismissed somewhat as simply political bravado, but it also implies that Saakashvili personally seeks to return to power, something that would give pause to many Georgian citizens. If he means return to Georgia, the question of why many around him have not returned to Georgia, particularly those not facing indictment there, can only be answered with the assumption that those people right now believe that Ukraine is more important than Georgia. While there may, in some abstract geopolitical sense be some truth to that, that is hardly the tone that those who seek to lead Georgia should take.
Saakashvili’s comment is only puzzling or ambiguous if it is understood to be a standalone remark made at a time of frustration or anger about his citizenship status, but it is not. These comments about returning to power are not new or sui generis. On the contrary, it is a theme to which Saakashvili has regularly returned since leaving power. He has, on occasion, even proposed resorting to extraconstitutional means to achieve these goals. Saakashvili has never been subtle about his personal ambition or about his belief that he is uniquely positioned to save Georgia from whatever the most immediate threat facing the country is; and that is the context in which these comment should be understood.
Saakashvili’s public desire to return to power in Georgia is more than just the standard aspirations or boasts by somebody who has lost an election. Rather, they are an expression of the unique role he believes he plays in Georgia, and of his belief that his party’s defeat in 2012 represents some kind of cosmic injustice or transnational plot to destroy him and his country, rather than simply a defeat of an unpopular government that had exhausted the goodwill of the people. This kind of thinking is delusional, but it is also very destructive for Georgia and a UNM that his trying to rebuild and expand its role in post-Saakashvili Georgia. Those in the UNM that are working to rebuild the party in Georgia undoubtedly see the need to move past the Saakashvili era and do not relish these types of comments by the former President, but Saakashvili, for his part, also understands that if Georgia’s political discourse moves on without him, than his hopes of returning to power, regardless of how far-fetched, will collapse altogether.
Every Saakashvili vow to return to power is an effort to bring Georgia back to the dynamic of 2010-2012, when politics in Georgia was unidimensional driven by little more than whether or not politicians and voters supported or opposed Saakashvili. The 2012 election ended, or more accurately, should have ended that dynamic. Unfortunately, since then both sides have sought to keep it alive. Moreover, the more more visible Saakashvili kibitzes about Georgian politics and promises to return, the more difficult it is for the UNM to succeed in the rebranding that is absolutely essential if they are to move beyond the loyal, but small, base of voters that have stuck with the party since their defeat in 2012. There are almost certainly voters in Georgia that are disappointed with the GD since they came to power, but whose enthusiasm for the UNM would be much greater if they felt that UNM had moved past the Saakashvili period. This is, of course, very difficult so long as Saakashvili continues to visibly promise to return to power.
The Georgia Analysis is a twice monthly analysis of political and other major developments in Georgia. Lincoln Mitchell is a political development, research and strategic consultant who has worked extensively in the post-Soviet space. If you would like to be on the Georgia analysis mailing list or are interested in more research, analysis or consulting for your business, government, campaign or other organization, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.