On the eve of contentious local elections, Georgia has become embroiled in a fight over whether or not a video showing former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s alleged return to the country after nearly eight years in self-exile is a deepfake.
For both Saakashvili detractors and supporters, the stakes are sizeable: The Georgian government has scuttled a pledge to hold early parliamentary elections if it does not secure 43 percent of the vote at the October 2 elections, but the opposition still calls the vote a "referendum."
With that in mind, Saakashvili has claimed that he is returning to Georgia, increasingly targeted by international criticism of its respect for civil rights, "to save the country."
To some supporters, the energetic 53-year-old ex-president, known for his anti-corruption drive and pro-Western foreign policies, still delivers the most effective counterpunch to the Georgian Dream.
“The main thing isn’t how and when Mikheil Saakashvili arrived in Georgia,” one of the leaders of Saakashvili’s United National Movement party, Zaal Udumashvili, commented to journalists in Tbilisi, Georgian news outlets reported. “The main thing is that Saakashvili is in Georgia.”
Udumashvili, like other of Saakashvili’s current or former political allies, denied any knowledge of his current whereabouts. Members of the United National Movement have stated that more information will be available later.
If in Georgia, Saakashvili, who ruled the country from 2004 until 2013, has incentives not to disclose his exact location. In 2018, he was sentenced in absentia to 9 years in prison for allegedly abusing his power in granting pardons to three Interior Ministry officials convicted of murder and for beating an opposition MP.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili, who asserts his government's respect for the rule of law, has pledged that he will be arrested upon arrival.
Saakashvili, an attorney by profession and former justice minister, rejects these charges as politicized. “Let the Georgian people make the decision,” he told the Formula TV station on September 25. “I fear nothing.”
On September 27, he posted an e-ticket on Facebook for an October 2 flight from Kyiv on Ukraine International Airlines that would arrive in Tbilisi at 11:05 p.m., after polls had closed.
On the morning of October 1, however, Saakashvili changed track, and announced on Facebook his alleged return to Georgia for the first time since 2013.
After the Interior Ministry denied he had crossed the Georgian border, Saakashvili posted a Facebook video in which he claimed to be in Batumi, the Black Sea port city whose revival had been a key focus of his administrations.
“This is my Batumi. I risked everything to come here,” he stated.
In a subsequent video, he urged Georgians to head toward Tbilisi on the morning of October 3 to “defend the election results." Saakashvili, who no longer is a Georgian citizen, claimed that he himself would take part in this demonstration.
Such a scenario evokes Saakashvili supporters’ massive caravan to Tbilisi during the 2003 Rose Revolution that brought his National Movement party to power over fraudulent parliamentary elections.
But the government, which had pledged earlier to arrest Saakashvili upon arrival for outstanding criminal charges, does not intend to lose control of the situation. Members of the ruling Georgian Dream claim Saakashvili’s Facebook videos are fake, but have not yet elaborated about the basis for these statements.
The Georgian Interior Ministry simply told the news service InterpressNews that Saakashvili had not crossed Georgia’s border.
“From the start, we assumed this is deepfake technology,” commented Georgian Dream Chairman Irakli Kobakhidze. “However, in the end, it turned out to be much simpler technology. It’s a very simple fake, which doesn’t surprise anyone from Mikheil Saakashvili.”
Urging voters to remain calm, parliamentary Chairman Kakha Kuchava echoed the claims of a fake video.
One Georgian Dream deputy angrily dismissed the idea that Saakashvili could slip back into the country undetected by the authorities. If Saakashvili returns, he will be immediately arrested, Givi Mikinadze insisted to the pro-Saakashvili TV station Mtavari Arkhi (Main Channel). “Have you seen him?” Mikinadze asked the channel. “When you see him, then we’ll talk.”
In his second Facebook video, Saakashvili stands, apparently on land, with his back to high-rise buildings whose outlines are obscured in the darkness. A body of water behind him indistinctly shows their reflections.
Batumi residents and other Georgians who know the city well could only conjecture about the video’s actual location, RFE/RL’s Georgian Service reported.
Some of these interviewees believed they could make out Batumi’s Leogrand Hotel & Casino in the footage. The facility is officially known as the JRW Welmond Hotel & Casino. Other Georgians spotted the city’s cable car building, while, in a closed Facebook group, still others identified additional landmarks, according to the Service, which did not name the group.
Additional users, however, countered that the video is fake, citing the absence of certain buildings.
For Georgian Dream parliamentary deputy Shalva Papuashvili, the demands for evidence are pointless. “It’s impossible to prove what doesn’t exist,” he commented.
Former and current Saakashvili allies have scoffed at the government and Georgian Dream’s response. European Georgia Chairman Giga Bokeria, Saakashvili’s former National Security Council chairman, described it as “comic,” the news site Tabula reported.
But the fact that Saakashvili is not in Kyiv, where he has worked since 2020 as
chairman of the executive committee of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s National Reforms Council, has already been confirmed by his colleagues.
Saakashvili spokeswoman Daryna Chizh told Radio Svoboda, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, that he currently is in Batumi.
An employee of Saakashvili’s office, Maria Barabash, earlier told Mtavari Arkhi that the former Georgian leader had left Kyiv on September 30.
Political ally Oleksiy Kapeliushniy stated on October 1 that the former Georgian leader, now a Ukrainian citizen, had gathered his Ukrainian team together “several days ago” and “told us that, now, Georgia needs him,” the channel reported.
The Ukrainian presidential administration does not appear to have commented officially yet.
Within Georgia, some former political allies of Saakashvili are urging voters to keep their attention on the October 2 vote, and not on the debate over Saakashvili’s alleged homecoming videos and whereabouts.
“Tomorrow, you have the opportunity to resolve this country’s fate with your vote for decades to come,” Bokeria said.
-With additional reporting from Radio Tavisupleba, Radio Svoboda, Imedi, Interpressnews, Mtavari Arkhi, Netgazeti.ge, and Tabula
-Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Mikheil Saakashvili was sentenced in absentia to 6 years in prison. A correction has been made.