Tens of thousands of Georgians gathered in the capital Tbilisi to demand the release of the imprisoned ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili.
Sing Saakashvili’s nickname “Misha! And waving national flags, the demonstrators filled the Liberty Square and the main artery of Rustaveli Avenue on Thursday, an AFP correspondent estimated the crowd at more than 50,000 people.
President of Georgia from 2004 to 2013, Saakashvili was arrested and imprisoned in early October on 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 over his deteriorating health.
“He has a movement problem, he moves a little slower and his situation is getting worse every day,” Dito Sadzaglishvili, Saakashvili’s lawyer, told Al Jazeera.
The flamboyant pro-Western reformer was found guilty in absentia of abuse of power and sentenced to six years in prison in 2018. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Another Saakashvili lawyer, Nika Gvaramia, read a speech to the crowd, calling for the “destruction” of the government linked to its main rival, the powerful tycoon Bidzina Ivanishvili.
“Georgia must resume 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, several-kilometer processions carrying Saakashvili supporters headed for Tbilisi from across the country, independent television station Pirveli reported.
Buses loaded with riot police were deployed outside the parliament building ahead of the protest.
Saakashvili called on his supporters to mobilize against Ivanishvili, who founded the ruling Georgian Dream party and is widely regarded as the country’s top decision-maker.
Saakashvili was stripped of his Georgian passport after acquiring Ukrainian citizenship in 2016 and then headed a government agency responsible for 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 an uproar among Saakashvili supporters, Garibashvili said the ex-president “must quit politics or we must stop him.”
The government has declared Saakashvili’s hunger strike a political theater ahead of the second round of municipal elections at the end of the month.
“The circus and the spectacle that we have seen in recent days have of course only one goal,” Garibashvili told Al Jazeera.
“It is President Saakashvili’s task to raise the temperature one way or another. His party knows that in the second round of elections they will lose everywhere, so they are trying to show the public that President Saakashvili is seriously ill.
Some analysts thought Saakashvili’s return was inappropriate.
“Everyone knows he thirsts for power and I think it also scares some voters to support him,” Kornely Kakachia of the Georgian Institute of Politics told Al Jazeera.
“So far what we’ve seen is that he doesn’t have a lot of support to start a new uprising or a revolution here. Plus, he doesn’t have as much international support as he 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 due to the country’s backlash on democracy.
“Georgia’s western allies fear that Saakashvili’s arrest was politically motivated, but they also warned him against returning home and destabilizing an already divided electorate,” said Robin Forestier Walker of ‘Al Jazeera, reporting from Rustavi, where the president is imprisoned.
His detention has exacerbated 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 international observers say has been marred by widespread and consistent allegations of pressure on the candidates.
The vote gave the ruling party an easy victory, which has been accused by the opposition of fraud.