Tens of thousands of Georgians have demonstrated in the capital, Tbilisi, to demand the release of jailed former president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili.
Chanting Saakashvili’s nickname “Misha!” and waving national flags, protesters filled the city’s Freedom Square and main Rustaveli avenue on Thursday, and an AFP correspondent estimated the crowd to be more than 50,000 people.
The president of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili was arrested and imprisoned in early October upon his return from exile in Ukraine.
The 53-year-old founder of Georgia’s main opposition force, the United National Movement, has declared a hunger strike and doctors have expressed concern about his deteriorating health.
“He has a movement problem, he moves a little slower and his situation is getting worse every day,” Dito Sadzaglishvili, a lawyer for Saakashvili, told Al Jazeera.
The flamboyant pro-Western reformer was convicted in absentia on charges of abuse of power and sentenced to six years in prison in 2018. He has denied wrongdoing.
Another of Saakashvili’s lawyers, Nika Gvaramia, read a speech to the crowd calling for the government linked to his main rival, powerful magnate Bidzina Ivanishvili, to be “destroyed.”
“Georgia must return to its pro-Western path and become a beacon of democracy, reform and development,” the letter said.
“It is time to save Georgia through our national unity and reconciliation.”
On Thursday morning, kilometer-long caravans of cars carrying Saakashvili supporters headed to Tbilisi from across the country, the independent Pirveli television station reported.
Buses full of riot police were deployed in front of the parliament building before the protest.
Saakashvili has called on his supporters to mobilize against Ivanishvili, who founded the ruling Georgian Dream party and is believed to be the main decision-maker in the country.
Saakashvili was stripped of his Georgian passport after he acquired Ukrainian citizenship in 2016 and went on to head a government agency that led reforms in that country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said he will push for Saakashvili’s release, but Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili has ruled out sending the former leader to Ukraine.
In televised remarks that sparked outrage among Saakashvili’s supporters, Garibashvili said the former president “had to quit politics or we had to stop him.”
The government has called Saakashvili’s hunger strike a political theater ahead of the second round of mayoral elections at the end of the month.
“The circus and the spectacle that we have seen these last few days, of course, have only one purpose,” Garibashvili told Al Jazeera.
“It is President Saakashvili’s job to raise the temperature somehow. His party knows that in the second round of the elections they will lose everywhere, so they try to show the public that President Saakashvili is seriously ill. “
Some analysts believed that Saakashvili’s return was untimely.
“Everybody knows that he is hungry for power and I think that also scares some voters into not supporting him,” Kornely Kakachia of the Georgia Institute of Politics told Al Jazeera.
“So far, what we’ve seen is that you don’t have as much support to start a new uprising or revolution here. It’s also important that it doesn’t have as much international support as it used to, ”Kakachia said.
The prosecution of Saakashvili and many of his allies by the current government has raised concerns in the West. The United States has hinted at possible sanctions against Georgian officials for the country’s backwardness to democracy.
“Georgia’s western allies are concerned that Saakashvili’s arrest is politically motivated, but they also warned him about returning home and destabilizing an already divided electorate,” said Robin Forestier Walker of Al Jazeera, reporting from Rustavi, where the president is incarcerated.
His arrest deepened a protracted political crisis in Georgia, where opposition parties denounced widespread fraud in last year’s parliamentary elections, narrowly won by Georgian Dream.
Saakashvili’s return to Georgia came just before local elections, which, according to international observers, were marred by widespread and consistent allegations of pressure on candidates.
The vote gave an easy victory to the ruling party, which was accused by the opposition of fraud.