Just what is Mikhail Saakashvili doing?
Georgian president, Ukrainian governor, stateless fugitive — in the past decade, he’s played all these roles, among others. But now that he’s perched in a tent community near the parliament building in Kiev, an opposition leader surrounded by a huge group of restive followers, the question of who this bombastic politician is and what his aims are has become more pressing than ever.
Trouble is, the answer to the question will vary wildly depending on whom you ask.
Pose it to Ukrainian authorities and they’ll tell you he’s a rabble-rousing criminal. The Security Service of Ukraine has tried twice this week to arrest him on the suspicion he’s conspiring with pro-Russian figures to undermine President Petro Poroshenko’s government.
The first time, on Tuesday, they had to haul him down from his apartment building’s roof — only to see him pulled from their police van by his angry supporters. On Wednesday they tried again, and again they failed to bring him in, this time because they were repulsed by tire-tossing members of the protest encampment set up in Mariyinsky Park.
Saakashvili’s supporters, for their part, dismiss the authorities’ allegations as trumped-up charges designed to eliminate a significant rival to Poroshenko. Saakashvili has cast himself as a crusader against government graft, and he has accrued a significant following in the process.
Neither version of Saakashvili — the opportunistic demagogue and the steely political activist — tells the whole story. But dig a little deeper into his long, labyrinthine past, and one might find a fair amount of fodder to support both conclusions.
A rise and fall in Georgia
Swept into power at the head of a peaceful uprising known as the Rose Revolution, the brash young Saakashvili represented an optimistic vision of democratic reform and independence from neighboring Russia’s influence. A former justice minister, he won the presidency in 2004 — and won plaudits from the West while he was at it.
“Your courage is inspiring democratic reformers and sending a message that echoes across the world,” President George W. Bush told him on a state visit there in 2005. “Freedom will be the future of every nation and every people on Earth.”
During his time in power, Saakashvili sought to refashion Georgia in the Western capitalist image, opening markets and striving to wean the country off its economic dependence on Russia.
“We’ve been thrown into the open sea,” he told Newsweek in 2006. “The time has come for us to learn to swim.”
Yet his grand Western dream eroded as his tenure stretched on.
A dayslong war with Russia ended disastrously for Georgia in 2008, and by Election Day in 2012 his reputation as a reformer had withered under criticism that he’d become increasingly authoritarian. He ended up soundly losing that election.
Within two years of his electoral loss, the prosecutor’s office in Georgia had filed charges on Saakashvili and dozens of other former officials, saying he had exceeded his authority as president and engaged in corruption. He called the charges a “farce,” according to Reuters, adding that the allegations lodged against him by the new government were simply aimed at “pleasing Russia.”
He was out of country at the time the charges were filed. He has not been back since to Georgia, which continues to angle for his extradition.
About-faces in Ukraine
When Saakashvili came to Ukraine in 2014, Kiev welcomed him warmly as an ally. Massive demonstrations had only recently forced out the country’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. Newly installed in office, Poroshenko saw in Saakashvili a fellow antagonist of the Kremlin, and he wasted little time in finding an official function for the Georgian.
The president summarily granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship in 2015 — a move that meant he would have to give up his Georgian citizenship, which, given his legal woes there, couldn’t have been a difficult choice. Poroshenko also went one step further, appointing the new citizen to the governorship of the Odessa region.
But as Radio Free Europe notes, the job didn’t exactly go smoothly. Or last long:
“After a stint that included occasionally dramatic acts of political theater, the Ukrainian plan went awry and Saakashvili quit in November 2016, publicly accusing Poroshenko of blocking his reform efforts. He announced the launch of his own opposition party, called Movement of New Forces, and began campaigning against his former ally.”
Indeed, the disputes grew so acrimonious, a notorious fight even broke out between Saakashvili and the country’s interior minister at a council meeting. Arsen Avakov said that, faced with Saakashvili’s “hysterical” behavior, “I refrained from hitting him, and just threw water in his face.”
“It’s a long time since I’ve seen such a bonkers populist,” he wrote after the meeting in late 2015, according to The Guardian. “Nobody could get a word in edgeways, he was interrupting everyone including the president.”
Earlier this year, roughly nine months after his resignation, Poroshenko stripped Saakashvili of his citizenship while the latter was on a visit to the U.S.
Saakashvili had been a Ukrainian for a mere two years. Now, unwelcome by authorities in both the countries he has called home, the promising politician who was once the great Western hope for the former Soviet territories is a man without a state.
That didn’t stop him from returning to Ukraine, however.
In a move reminiscent of the mob action that freed him Tuesday, Saakashvili pushed his way into Ukraine in September in dramatic fashion. The German newspaper Deutsche Welle described the scene:
“The circumstances were astonishing, even for a country like Ukraine, whose recent history is rich in scurrilous political incidents. Initially, the 49-year-old former governor of Odessa oblast attempted to enter the country by train, accompanied by a crowd of journalists. The Ukrainian train was stopped in Poland and the politician was requested to disembark. Saakashvili then traveled by bus to another border crossing, where his well-muscled supporters literally carried him over the border. The Ukrainian border guards appeared to be helpless.”
Since then, Saakashvili has railed tirelessly against his old friend in Kiev.
Populist or provocateur?
It’s unclear where this skein unspools from here.
Saakashvili’s status remains entirely up in the air. Though stateless, he can’t claim the status of a refugee since Ukraine rejected his petition for political asylum last month — and though he’s free for now, he’s a wanted man in both countries where he once held leadership positions.
Long known for his opposition to Russia, Saakashvili nevertheless now stands accused of what Ukraine’s top prosecutor calls “the revenge plan of the pro-Kremlin forces in Ukraine.”
“This part of the ‘Russian Spring’ operation in Kiev is related to the cooperation of a series of politicians — first of all, Mikhail Saakashvili with the members of Yanukovych’s organized criminal group,” Yuriy Lutsenko told reporters on Tuesday, playing audio and video footage purporting to show Saakashvili arranging payments from a wealthy pro-Russian businessman.
These payments, according to Lutsenko, funded “protest rallies aimed at seizing power in Ukraine and facilitating the members of the organized criminal group.”
But in a Ukraine just years removed from political revolution, law enforcement officers appear reluctant to press the matter, painfully aware of the dangers of making martyrs out of him and his supporters. So, even after multiple attempts at arrests, Saakashvili remains at large — and remains vocal in denying the charges.
“Do not attack or force people into fighting back! This is a peaceful rally! Has the experience taught you nothing?”