Sixteen months after his arrest, Mikheil Saakashvili has lost more than 90 pounds and needs a walker to move around his prison hospital. The former Georgian president was for a time, on a hunger strike, which helps explain his weight loss and his exhaustion. But it does not explain the traces of arsenic, mercury, and other toxins that a doctor found in his hair and nail clippings. It does not explain the beatings he has described to his lawyer. It does not explain the constant pain in his left shoulder, neck, and spine.
Nor can anything other than malice—organized, official, state-sponsored malice—explain why Saakashvili is on a strange medical regimen that includes 14 different drugs, some addictive, some not approved for sale in the United States. Or why he has mild brain damage. Or why he has seizures. Giorgi Badridze, a former Georgian ambassador who keeps in constant touch with Saakashvili’s family, told me that “nothing has been exaggerated. He is doing really badly.” At age 55, Saakashvili is declining rapidly. And as he declines, so do the prospects of a sovereign, democratic Georgia.
Georgia is a former Soviet republic, and to those who live in the former Soviet empire—the same empire that Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, now seeks to re-create—Saakashvili’s accumulated prison illnesses form a familiar pattern. The slow prison death was a Soviet speciality: not a murder, not an assassination, just a well-monitored, carefully controlled, long, drawn-out decline. Most of the people who died in Soviet prison camps were not executed; they were merely starved until their heart stopped beating. In Putin’s Russia, torture and the deprivation of medical aid famously killed Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer who uncovered an infamous corruption scandal at the highest levels of the Russian regime. Isolation, withholding of food, and other punishments are right now being inflicted on Alexei Navalny and other political prisoners too.
The readoption of this old Soviet practice in Georgia, a country that has, or had, aspirations to be part of NATO and the European Union, represents a symbolic return to the old Soviet empire. The decision to inflict this form of torture on Saakashvili carries even more symbolic weight. As president from 2004 to 2013, he was notable mostly for pushing his country, which borders Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, in the direction of Western liberal democracy. In his years in office, he broke the power of the post-Soviet mafia, battled corruption, fought back against a Russian invasion, and opened the economy. Putin loathed him and his political program so much that he reportedly once said Saakashvili should be “hung by his balls.” He hated Saakashvili for the same reason he now hates the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky: because he used the language of liberal democracy; because he talked about a European, Western future for his country; and because he rejected Putin’s kleptocratic, illiberal ideology. [Continue reading…]