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Georgia's aim to join the EU may depend on what happens to its jailed ex-president

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Like Ukraine, Georgia is a former Soviet republic knocking on Europe's door. But its candidacy in the European Union is complicated by the treatment of its former leader. NPR's Charles Maynes has more from the Georgian capital, Tbilisi.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: The image on the courtroom video screen was all the more shocking because nearly everyone remembers the man as he used to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKHEIL SAAKASHVILI: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: Here was Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, speaking from a prison hospital bed. A politician once famous for his energy and drive now looked ghostlike, his body emaciated and spent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAAKASHVILI: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: The cause is a point of contention that's divided Georgian society and may impact the country's future depending on what happens next, argue his closest supporters.

SAAKASHVILI: The order is to kill him there slowly.

MAYNES: Giuli Alasania is closer than most - she's Saakashvili's mother. Alasania says her son was poisoned by the Kremlin with implicit backing from longtime rivals in the current Georgian government.

GIULI ALASANIA: They don't acknowledge the fact that he was poisoned. And they have to start from that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOD SIZZLING)

ALASANIA: This is grichikha (ph).

MAYNES: Every day, twice a day, Alasania delivers food to her son's prison hospital bed.

ALASANIA: Eggs, sometimes some different vegetables. His food options are very limited.

MAYNES: Saakashvili is serving six years for abuse of power and faces additional charges that could add more time. Alasania, like her son says, it's all payback for trying to pull the country out of Moscow's orbit, for trying to remake Georgia into a Western democracy.

ALASANIA: He was democrat. That's why he's there in jail.

(CHEERING)

MAYNES: Saakashvili first gained international fame as the leader of Georgia's peaceful Rose Revolution in 2003, setting the country on a pro-Western path with ambitions to join the EU and NATO. He courted the U.S. in particular, a move that soured relations with Russia, the region's traditional powerbroker, as he noted in an interview with NPR at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SAAKASHVILI: I think Russians understand that it's not the battlefield between the superpowers. We are a small country. We need to survive in a very complicated geopolitical environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE RATTLING)

MAYNES: Yet a brief but disastrous war in 2008 saw Russia seize 20% of Georgia's territory, land Moscow still holds to this day.

(APPLAUSE)

MAYNES: Faced with voter anger over the war and growing questions over his human rights record, Saakashvili was voted out in 2012, losing power to a Russia-friendly oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili. And that's where things basically stop. Today, Ivanishvili's Georgia Dream party remains the dominant force in Georgian politics. Meanwhile, the party Saakashvili founded remains the key opposition voice, despite Saakashvili spending years in exile before his return and arrest in 2021.

NIKOLOZ SAMKHARADZE: Well, it's very difficult for the government. Obviously, it is a big headache for us.

MAYNES: Nikoloz Samkharadze is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a member of the ruling Georgia Dream party in the parliament. He argues Saakashvili is intentionally starving himself.

SAMKHARADZE: He's trying to look as if he has some terminal illness so that he could be released.

MAYNES: Independent medical exams failed to settle the dispute. Meanwhile, a case on Saakashvili's treatment is winding its way before the European Court of Human Rights, and the EU has issued warnings to Georgia's leaders over Saakashvili's deteriorating health.

KORNELY KAKACHIA: Will Georgia gain anything if something happens to him? No.

MAYNES: Kornely Kakachia of the Georgian Institute of Politics says the optics of Saakashvili's mistreatment don't help when Georgia's future with the West is up for discussion.

KAKACHIA: Whatever he's doing, deliberately or not deliberately, the risk is there.

MAYNES: Last December, the country was granted EU candidate status, clearing a first hurdle towards a long road of negotiations to join the EU.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

(APPLAUSE)

MAYNES: But even as Georgians rallied in celebration, EU officials warned that membership rests on Georgia's bitter political infighting coming to an end. Elections next fall may resolve that, but for now, Saakashvili remains in prison and his mother, Giuli Alasania, wonders how long he can survive.

ALASANIA: He's very strong morally, you know, he's ready to fight till the last moment.

MAYNES: And with that, she set off to deliver the former president another meal.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Tbilisi, Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Charles Maynes