Georgia’s democracy stronger than Russia’s blackmail, says ex-president Mikheil Saakashvili
Your ally is well-positioned to win Georgia’s presidential election. Do you hope to return?
"Well my party has won the election and we are in the lead position but also together with other opposition groups that have aligned with us we have up to 60% of the vote and it makes us a clear frontrunner ahead of the end of the run-off.
"It puts me in a strong position because I am the chairman of the party and that’s the main party of the coalition.
"This is not an election about my return to Georgia. It’s an election about a big change in Georgia.
"I am in a very unique situation. On the one hand I am the leader in Georgia but I am also the leader of a party in Ukraine, which, according to the latest polls is making it into the Ukrainian parliament.
"Being stateless in general I am the only politician in the world that leads two parliamentary parties in two different countries."
If your candidate does win, will you go back to Georgia?
"I said beforehand that I would go back to Georgia either way to be part of the process. At the same time I made it clear that I am not seeking any formal position, whatever the future Georgian government.
"That’s for the clear reason that I would like to act part of the process but also to allow other people to move in and have a broader base for new leadership and for a real change in the country.
"Actually if you look carefully at Georgia almost everyone who is running or who is leading the political process on either side are people who were brought into politics by me, under me as president, served as ministers in my government. Of course many of them now bitterly oppose me or still back me but it is still very much the old guard trying to keep power or take power, which basically makes it, for me, a challenge to bring in a new generation of political leaders to the Georgian political scene rather than always just playing between the old people."
So you are intending to return to Georgia, but not to Georgian politics?
"I am already part of Georgian politics, even being in Europe on a daily basis, I have my television appearances, I address the rallies on an almost daily basis by Skype in different parts of Georgia and sometimes Ukraine.
"What I am saying is I’m not running for any particular office in Georgia and I clearly indicate to my people that I would like to support new people into those positions in that country."
So you are not going to run for office again?
"Not for the moment. I don’t see a need. We have a very strong presidential candidate, who is a close ally. We clearly have a very young team of reformers who started to work under my government but new ones also joined us when we were in opposition.
"For me it would be preferable if I can help place them in such a position that they can be a new government in Georgia."
You’ve been convicted in your absence. Would you rely on a presidential pardon to get back to Georgia?
"Now look not only am I saying it’s politically motivated the entire world says that, except Russia.
"I have moved freely around the world and I am received by leaders of different countries and nobody has ever mentioned this.
"Everybody understands it’s a politically-fabricated case.
"I have made it very clear that I will not seek any pardon from the president. Why? Because I think as soon as we have a new president the judicial system will also be freed from adverse influence of oligarch Ivanishvili and his oligarchic cronies.
"In that respect I would be able to stand [up] for my rights in a court of law and if there is no real pressure from Ivanishvili’s people then my case is easy to reverse.
"I don’t want to put the [new] president in the position that he is running for office just [for me] and portray that the main idea of these elections is to get rid of my conviction.
"That’s unfair and I think it is not needed because I am fairly confident of the fact that if the court is freed from Ivanishvili’s influence — which would automatically happen if he loses the election — then I can fight back for my rights through a judicial procedure rather than seek a shortcut through a presidential pardon."
It would take quite some time to purge the judiciary wouldn’t it?
"We don’t need to purge the judiciary. What we need to do is get rid of the domination of the oligarch. As soon as the judges see that the oligarch will lose the election — which he will — I hope they will be more fair in their judgement.
"If we turn it round in these elections and say it’s all about what one man being pardoned that looks selfish, even if many people would vote for that. That looks unfair for the people. People are looking for better lives not just a better life for their president."
You’d be confident of going back to Georgia and clearing your name?
"Absolutely. I am sure that the fact that right now it looks like most of the political spectrum and voters do support the political force that I have incarnated clearly shows they don’t believe in the charges against me."
Independent voices have criticised prison conditions during your tenure and the number of political prisoners. Why would Georgians want you back?
"Nobody has ever seriously said we had political prisoners, however Georgia was a very criminalised country and on my watch it was turned into the safest country in Europe, according to international experts.
"These are not my words.
"Why would they want me back as a political leader? Ask the Georgian people! They clearly vote for change but also in support of a party that I created, that I chaired, the coalition that I am part of and the reforms we have implemented.
"In the conditions when the ruling elite forced me to leave the country and imprisoned many of our leaders, harassed us and still look, we are back. Which means that democracy works.
"We handed power over once peacefully, people thought it was for good. People who came in thought they would stay forever and now Georgian people have taught them a lesson.
"Political power belongs to the people and they make up their mind who should run the government.
"I think it’s a brilliant exercise in democracy. It’s not about me or the people running Georgia. It’s about people realising it’s a proper democracy and I think I laid the foundations for that and I am pretty proud."
Nevertheless people are going to fear human rights abuses are going to return if you come back.
"Look I don’t know who is speculating on that but I turned Georgia into a fully-fledged democracy and that’s why we have a democratic culture. Nobody has described me as a serial human rights offender or an authoritarian leader. I am sorry the facts are against that.
"Georgia has been successful and we have come under strong PR attacks from our northern neighbour Russia, who invested heavily in my character assassination. But people didn’t buy it and that’s why I am free to live in Europe."
Would your return polarise Georgian society and would Russia not try and capitalise?
"Well Russia is right now blackmailing Georgia on that one, but I think democracy is stronger than Russia’s blackmail. We clearly see that Russia is trying meddle into Georgian elections, it’s very obvious. The sites of the main independent TV channel has been attacked by what appears to be a Russian-style attack. My mails have been hacked and my telephone conversations have been intercepted, clearly not by some local Georgian operatives. We have seen a mass campaign on Russian television against me and my political force. We are clearly seeing the statements by Russian officials saying that they will never let me back into Georgia. Russia is a big country but they don’t have a say in a neighbouring democracy.
"Russia is making noises against all of us in the neighbourhood but that doesn’t mean we should stop living our lives
"I think [our] big neighbour should take care of its own issues and it is more than fair to let neighbours have a democratic way of living.
"If we don’t accept the Russian-style of living that doesn’t mean they should impose that through other means.
"That’s what free elections and media is all about. Of course Russia is lacking all that. Georgia already has that culture and that makes us different from Russia."
Would you support Georgia staying on a pro-EU and pro-NATO path?
"That’s the only way for Georgia to advance is to become pro-Europe and pro-NATO and to be a free, democratic and liberal society. All the other paths are leading us to a national catastrophe."
You changed your Facebook cover photo to "Make Georgia Great Again". Is Donald Trump your inspiration?
"Well it’s a half joke. Donald Trump said when he was still a businessman that I was his inspiration.
"Donald Trump called me one of the great world leaders and said he would copy the Georgian tax code.
"If he copied some of our tax code and tax direction then why would I not half-jokingly use his slogan?
"It’s a joke, it’s not the main motto of my party. But of course every politician wants to make his nation great and in our case we were the world’s number one political reformer and we would like to return to that spot again."