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Saakashvili's march on Kyiv

September 10, 2017

Ukrainian public enemy no. 1 wants to stir up the country's political system: Mikheil Saakashvili, former Georgian president and ex-governor of Odessa, plans a spectacular return to Kyiv — at all costs.

Michail Saakaschwili
Image: Picture-Alliance/dpa/EPA/T. Zenkovich

If political nervousness could be measured objectively, the appropriate anxiety meters would show strong reactions in Kyiv these days. Based in the Polish capital, Warsaw, Mikheil Saakashvili is preparing his return to Ukraine. Saakashvili, the man without passport, political archenemy of President Petro Poroshenko, intends to cross the border at Krakovets checkpoint, come noon on Sunday, September 10. "I'll go through to the end, until victory. But it won't be my own victory, but that of the people over oligarchy," Saakashvili said belligerently during a televised interview, simultaneously designating the political objectives for his return.

The Ukrainian government, however, wants to prevent Saakashvili from re-entering Ukrainian territory at all costs. The border crossing, located approximately an hour's drive from Lviv, has been bolstered with additional guard personnel by the border service. According to Oleh Slobodyan, a spokesman for the Ukrainian border guards, even "reserves" were mobilized - evidently in order to secure the green border as well. Local media report that brand-new barbed wire has been rolled out in order to seal off back roads in the border area. It's as if Ukraine was expecting an invasion, this time from the west; as if the challenge was to fend off an enemy of the state.

Read also: "The status quo is not good for anybody,' says envoy to Ukraine talks

Political career with comedowns

Ukraine Gouverneur von Odessa Michail Saakaschwili
As Odessa governor, Saakashvili continued his fight against corruption Image: DW/D. Florin

Saakashvili is known as a colorful political figure. He may well be the only stateless former head of state who has had each of his two citizenships revoked. His career has seen both dizzying heights and sudden downfalls. In 2003, he became president of the Republic of Georgia at the age of 36. Saakashvili reformed the country in the southern Caucasus at breakneck speed, turning the successor state to the Soviet Union into what could be called a neo-liberal model country. Yet as he pursued his agenda, his governance became increasingly authoritarian. In 2008, he got himself entangled in a war with Russia, as a result of which two separatist Georgian regions, Abkhazia and south Ossetia, were occupied by Russian troops.

Firstly, Saakashvili was removed from power in Tbilisi in 2013. Two years later, he was even stripped of his home country's citizenship. In May 2015, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko appointed him governor of the southern Ukrainian port city Odessa, which had gained notoriety for being a hub of corruption and crime. Saakashvili's Ukrainian statehood was fast-tracked. His assignment was to clean up Odessa, and he failed. At the beginning of 2017 he turned up in Kyiv, founded a small liberal party ("Movement of New Forces") and was very outspoken about his far-reaching political ambitions.

Stripping of citizenship far-fetched

At the end of July – at that time Saakashvili was visiting the US, the country in which he had studied law – the Ukrainian government revoked his citizenship in a surprise move. Even his opponents believe that the government's justification is rather spurious: When he received Ukrainian statehood, Saakashvili had allegedly concealed the fact that he was under investigation by Georgian authorities. This, however, had been covered by all the newspapers at the time.

Saakashvili announced that he was determined to fight for his Ukrainian passport and return to the country. Since then, a certain anxiety has been spreading in Kyiv's government district.

Präsident Poroschenko hat den in Georgien wegen Amtsmissbrauchs gesuchten Ex-Staatschef Saakaschwili zum Gebietsgouverneur von Odessa ernannt
When they were still friends: Ukrainian president Poroshenko appoints Saakashvili governor of OdessaImage: Reuters/Mykola Lazarenko/Ukrainian presidential press service

The ambitious Saakashvili, who many say has the demeanor of an egomaniac, apparently can count on more supporters in Ukrainian politics than had been expected. Yulia Tymoshenko, likewise well-known as a politician with a checkered past – a former PM, then a prominent political prisoner, now busy as a populist opposition politician – cited "filthy politics" affecting Saakashvili. His expatriation, initiated by president Poroshenko, "discredits Ukraine in the eyes of the whole world." But for Tymoshenko, accusing words are not enough.

Showdown in the border area

Antikorruptionsforum in Kiew
Anti-corruption forum in Kyiv in 2015Image: L. Gryshko

She is determined to travel to Krakovets on Sunday, accompanied by a group of some 30 members of the Ukrainian parliament (Rada), in order to welcome Saakashvili there. The ex-governor draws supporters from various political parties. The popular mayor of Lviv and chairman of the party Samopomich (Self-Reliance), Andriy Sadovyi, has also pledged support for Saakashvili. On the other hand, there have been reactions of fierce rejection: right-wing populist Oleh Lyashko openly calls for violence against Saakashvili if he dares to cross the "holy" Ukrainian border.

Observers in Kyiv now ask themselves whether Saakashvili will even be able to enter the country. Or will he be turned away? If he succeeds to enter Ukraine, will he be arrested and extradited to Georgia, where the ex-president is wanted by the courts over alleged abuse of power? Kyiv has already received an extradition request from Tbilisi, which the ministry of justice has under review. Or will Saakashvili, aided by his supporters, be able to avoid detention? "People want to help me, because I want to help them. I put a lot of hope into Ukrainians. Together, we will defeat the mafia," Saakashvili says, prior to the showdown at the Polish-Ukrainian border crossing.