MOSCOW – Mikheil Saakashvili, former President of Georgia and once a prominent figure in post-Soviet politics, was arrested Friday on charges he described as political after returning secretly to Georgia after eight years in exile.
Mr. Saakashvili’s return, like much of his tenure in power, had the attributes of a high-stakes political theater. The former president, who lived in Ukraine, has for days taunted the Georgian government, controlled by its political enemies, with allusions to a return, including posting photos of a plane ticket on social media.
It is not known how or when Mr. Saakashvili entered the country despite an arrest warrant against him which has been pending for years. But he apparently did not arrive at an airport, where he faced some arrest.
Before his detention on Friday, the cheerful-looking Mr Saakashvili posted videos of himself walking around Batumi, a Georgian seaside town on the Black Sea. He said he wanted to encourage voting in local elections on Saturday.
Eventually, the police found him in a small apartment on the outskirts of Tbilisi, the capital, where he was staying alone, according to Shota Utiashvili, a senior fellow at the Georgia Foundation for Strategic and International Studies and a former head of the government of Saakashvili. .
“He knew he would be arrested but decided to come anyway” to support his political party, the United National Movement, before the elections, Utiashvili said.
“The government said, ‘How can you have a party whose leader fears justice?’ ”Said Mr. Utiashvili. “It’s an argument that he’s a coward. He replied, ‘I’m no coward and if you want to stop me, here I am.’ “
On Friday evening, police transferred Mr. Saakashvili to a prison in Rustavi, about 24 kilometers from the capital. His arrest was confirmed by Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili.
Mr Saakashvili led the first wave of anti-authoritarian street uprisings in the former Soviet Union, called Color Revolutions, and he ruled Georgia as president from 2004 to 2013, a period that included a brief war with Russia. In the politics of the former Soviet states, it aligned itself with movements resisting Russian influence.
After resigning, Mr. Saakashvili lived for a time in Brooklyn. He then entered politics in Ukraine, after the 2014 revolution in that country toppled a pro-Russian president. He was one of a dozen former Georgian politicians who were given leadership positions in the Ukrainian government to help reshuffle the country’s bureaucracy.
For a time he fell out with the Ukrainian leadership and in 2018 he was arrested on the roof of a building in Kiev, where he had climbed to address supporters and evade the police. The dispute was resolved after a change in Ukrainian government.
He was governor of the city of Odessa, in southern Ukraine, and today holds an official position in the Ukrainian government as the head of the Office for Simple Solutions and Results, an agency he has created.
Back in Georgia, the new government accused him of abuse of power as president and a court in 2018 recognized Mr. Saakashvili in absentia and sentenced him to three years in prison.