Ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili said Friday he had returned from exile to Georgia, despite the threat of arrest and ahead of local elections in the Caucasus country gripped by a protracted political crisis.
“I risked my life and freedom to be back,” Saakashvili said in a video on Facebook, adding that he was in Georgia’s western city of Batumi on the Black Sea coast.
“I call on everyone to go to the elections and vote for the United National Movement,” he said, referring to Georgia’s main opposition party which he founded.
The 53-year-old flamboyant pro-Western reformer was Georgian president from 2004 to 2013 and swept to power in a wave of street protests.
He called on his supporters to gather on Tbilisi’s main thoroughfare on Sunday.
Earlier on Friday he wrote on Facebook: “Good morning. I am back in Georgia after eight years.”
Georgia’s interior ministry told the independent Formula TV channel that “Saakashvili did not cross Georgia’s state border.”
Saakashvili’s return from Ukraine — where he heads a government agency steering reforms — has raised the stakes ahead of Saturday’s municipal elections, seen as a key test for the increasingly unpopular ruling party.
Saakashvili is wanted by Georgian authorities on abuse of office charges which he says are politically motivated.
He left Georgia in 2013 when his second and last term as president ended.
On Monday, he announced his planned return from Ukraine, saying he would be flying to Georgia’s capital Tbilisi on Saturday evening and posting a copy of his ticket.
Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said at the time that “if Saakashvili sets foot on Georgian soil, he will be immediately arrested and brought to prison.”
Western capitals have accused Georgian authorities of a political witch-hunt and Interpol turned down requests from Tbilisi to issue a red notice against Saakashvili.
Georgia plunged into political turmoil last year, when opposition parties denounced elections won narrowly by the ruling Georgian Dream party as rigged.
In May, European Council President Charles Michel mediated an inter-party agreement under which Georgian Dream pledged to call snap parliamentary polls if it garners less than 43% of the vote in Saturday’s local elections.
But in July the ruling party unilaterally withdrew from the agreement, sparking harsh criticism from the European Union and the United States.
In his video address Monday, Saakashvili insisted the EU-brokered deal remained in force, saying the upcoming elections “are a referendum on (Georgian Dream founder Bidzina) Ivanishvili’s removal from power.”
Oligarch Ivanishvili — Georgia’s richest man and a former prime minister — is widely believed to be calling the shots in Georgia but insists he is no longer a political player.
Critics accuse him of using prosecutions to punish political opponents and critical journalists.
With concerns mounting in the West over the ruling party’s democratic credentials, the United States has hinted at possible sanctions against Georgian Dream officials.
In recent years Saakashvili has positioned himself as an enemy of what he says are corrupt oligarchs whose “informal power suffocates what’s left of democracy in Eastern Europe.”