‘I was poisoned by Russian agents,’ Georgia’s ex-President Saakashvili says

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Georgia’s former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has been detained by authorities in Tbilisi for over a year, suffering dramatic weight loss and severe ill health, told POLITICO he believed he was “poisoned by Russian agents.”

The claim from the pro-Western politician forms part of a broader series of accusations about nefarious Russian influence. In particular, he insisted that Bidzina Ivanishvili, the oligarch founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, was acting under instruction from Moscow to “capture” the Georgian state. Although the vast majority of Georgians support closer ties with NATO and the EU, critics of Georgian Dream say the government has deliberately undermined a more westward political trajectory in order not to inflame relations with Russia.

The Russian agents “infiltrated [the] Georgian security services,” Saakashvili said. “I remember vividly the day when poison was administered, I almost died.”

“Since then, I am in poor health,” the ex-leader added, saying he has lost half his body weight since he was arrested in October 2021 and now weighs 60 kilograms, down from 120 kg. “At the facility I am in, the main treatment decisions are taken by security services, not by doctors — they appoint all the medical staff,” Saakashvili wrote in answers transmitted to POLITICO by his American lawyer, Massimo D’Angelo.

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According to D’Angelo, small doses of poison were probably mixed into Saakashvili’s food and water — which the lawyer says is consistent with the Kremlin’s slow, agonizing methods when it comes to eliminating political prisoners.

Saakashvili, 55, served two presidential terms from 2004 to 2013. He was detained on abuse of power charges, which he claims are politically motivated, and then went on a 50-day hunger strike, which caused significant damage to his health. He has been in detention since then.

Last December, medical reports seen by POLITICO revealed “traces of mercury and arsenic” in his hair and nails, and lacerations “throughout his body.” On several occasions, he looked alarmingly gaunt and frail in video appearances in court over the last few months.

According to the Tbilisi clinic where Saakashvili is held, the former president has been refusing treatment since last October, and “expressed distrust” towards his doctors. Meanwhile, the Georgian authorities have accused him of misrepresenting his condition in order to secure an early release.

So far, the Tbilisi court overseeing his case has refused to free him on humanitarian grounds. Several European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have called for his release.

When asked who he thinks is responsible for his situation, Saakashvili points to one individual: Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man.

Pro-Russian oligarch

Acting on “Moscow’s instructions,” Ivanishvili has “captured” Georgia, Saakashvili said.

Ivanishvili, 67, is the founder of Georgian Dream and was Georgia’s prime minister from 2012 to 2013 | Vano Shlamov/AFP via Getty Images

A multi-billionaire who made his fortune in post-Soviet Russia, Ivanishvili, 67, is the founder of Georgian Dream and was Georgia’s prime minister from 2012 to 2013.

Although he is officially no longer involved in politics, he is still believed to be working in the shadows. Last February, a resolution from the European Parliament claimed Ivanishvili was responsible for Saakashvili’s detention “as part of a personal vendetta.”

“He controls everything — legislative, government, judiciary,” Saakashvili said.

Earlier this month, Georgia’s Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili dismissed claims that Ivanishvili was still involved with the party, saying the “alleged Russian government of pro-Russian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili” was “fake news.” Garibashvili also called Saakashvili a “mad dictator.” Georgia’s Justice Minister Rati Bregadze contends Saakashvili’s “radical supporters” are intentionally trying to aggravate his health condition to pave the way for his release. 

Saakashvili also blames the oligarch for introducing a controversial “foreign agents law” that triggered big protests in Tbilisi two weeks ago.

The law, which required all organizations receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents,” or face hefty fines, is reminiscent of several bills passed by the Kremlin under Putin. Critics saw it as an attempt to muzzle media and NGOs before elections.

It was approved by parliament in the first reading thanks to the backing of Georgian Dream. But, faced with rising popular dissent at home — and criticism abroad, where the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the law was “incompatible with EU values” — the party abandoned the bill three days later.

To justify the withdrawal, the party said the bill had “caused differences of opinion in society,” and claimed a “machine of lies was able to present the bill in a negative light and mislead a certain part of the public.”

Moscow vs. Brussels

Ever since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last year, fears of interference from the Kremlin have resurfaced in several former Soviet republics — including in Georgia, where two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, are under Russian control.

Yet, the recent protests have illustrated a growing gap between the expectations of a predominantly pro-EU population, and a government that many fear has been moving closer to Moscow under Georgian Dream, the party in power since 2012. (According to the latest polls, 85 percent of Georgians are in favor of joining the EU.)

“Ivanishvili decided that Putin’s opinion was decisive and that [the] Georgian public was worthless,” Saakashvili said.

“Well, he made [the] traditional mistake of all autocrats: he cannot tame free people.”

Georgian Dream did not respond to a request for comment in direct response to Saakashvili’s latest accusations.

POLITICO attempted to contact Ivanishvili through the party he founded, Georgian Dream, but received no answer.

Dato Parulava contributed reporting.