The curious case of Mikheil Saakashvili
When on July 26th 2017 it was declared that Ukraine’s president, Petro Poroshenko, decided to rescind his previous decision of granting Ukrainian citizenship to the former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, political commentators in Ukraine all agreed that this was one of Poroshenko’s most irrational decisions since assuming office. Now, when the Ukrainian authorities have detained Saakashvili’s brother, David, who has been living in Kyiv, the case looks even more bizarre, where state institutions are being used as tools to stop potential political competition.
David Saakashvili was detained briefly in Kyiv on Saturday September 2nd. Having spent several hours in the migration office of the Pecherskyi district in Kyiv, he was let go. According to the State Migration Service of Ukraine, his residence and work permits were cancelled in April 2017 and it was discovered that he was still in Ukraine. As an irregular migrant he apparently had a choice to leave the country voluntarily or be extradited to Georgia should he choose to stay. The whole incident seems to be a harsh reminder to Mikheil Saakashvili, that the Ukrainian state has more tools at its disposal than meets the eye. This reminder came less than two weeks before September 10th – the day when Mikheil Saakashvili has promised to return to Ukraine to fight for his own right to stay in the country and continue his political career.
In July 2017 when the decision regarding Mikheil Saakashvili’s citizenships was announced the seemingly good relations between Poroshenko and Saakashvili were already long over. There was no obvious reason for Poroshenko to expel Saakashvili in such a strange manner. Despite his political talents and former achievements Saakashvili has not managed to find and maintain any significant level of support among Ukrainian voters and has no ability to be politically competitive anywhere in the country. He certainly has no chance for the presidency due to formal obstacles, if not for any other reason. He could potentially run for a seat in parliament, but having his Ukrainian passport only since 2015 disqualifies him for the highest office.
In terms of political support Saakashvili’s chances in Ukrainian politics do not seem promising either. According to various surveys, only about two per cent of Ukrainian voters would support Saakashvili and his party The Movement of New Forces in parliamentary elections. In general Ukrainian voters seemed to be disappointed with Saakashvili and his lack of progress in the Odesa oblast where he was head of the regional state administration for more than a year (from June 2015 till the end of November 2016). Since he left that position Saakashvili became a fierce critic of Poroshenko and his government, and appeared to be building a strategy to challenge Poroshenko in the next parliamentary elections (to take place not later than 2019).
The announcement of Poroshenko’s decision and argumentation to strip Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship left spectators astonished. According to the official statement, Saakashvili knowingly withheld information about the Georgian state’s criminal prosecution against him in his application for Ukrainian citizenship. Anton Gerashchenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament who also serves as an advisor to Ukraine’s minister of interior, Arsen Avakov, stated that the Georgian prosecutor’s office provided the Ukrainian authorities with new information regarding Saakashvili’s alleged crimes. In an attempt to support Poroshenko’s decision, MP Volodymyr Ariev published the scan of Saakashvili’s alleged application for citizenship online, which showed that information about the ongoing criminal proceedings against Saakashvili was missing.
Saakashvili fired back, stating that the signature on the document published by Ariev was not his. During the debate, it was also revealed that many newcomers to Ukraine, following Poroshenko’s rise to power, were swiftly given Ukrainian passports, bypassing all possible standard procedures including forgoing basic formalities such as an application form. Saakashvili was most likely granted citizenship in this manner.
In Georgia some commentators noted that Saakashvili had been stripped of Ukrainian citizenship just one week after Poroshenko visited that country. Poroshenko went to Georgia on July 17-19th and it seemed very likely that political prospects of Saakashvili in Ukraine were discussed during some of the meetings. In Georgia Saakashvili is a target of a criminal investigation and the Georgian authorities rarely miss an opportunity to remind others of this situation. Shortly after the announcement of losing his Ukrainian citizenship, Saakashvili arrived in Warsaw. The Georgian authorities immediately contacted their Polish counterparts to remind them about the criminal investigation against Saakashvili back at home.
Nobody wants him here
However, it would seem that nobody in Georgia really wants Saakashvili to come back. In mid-August, a telephone conversation between the Georgian minister of interior, Giorgi Mgebrishvili, and a Russian pranker who calls himself “Lexus” was published online. The pranker called Mgebrishvili posing as Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister, to discuss the Saakashvili situation. He proposed that the Ukrainian authorities extradite Saakashvili to Georgia. After a noticeable pause, Mgebrishvili declared that “nobody wants Saakashvili in Georgia”. The conversation was denied by the Georgian authorities, but the version that states that “nobody wants Saakashvili here” seems to equally apply to Ukraine as well as. Apparently, the current political elite in both countries would prefer if Saakashvili land on the margins of public attention and disappear into oblivion living (comfortably or not) in some distant country where he is not important enough to get into the public eye.
For better or worse, this scenario seems to be the most realistic one. However, there will still be some drama to watch. Saakashvili has promised to return to Ukraine on September 10th (using the Ukrainian passport which is still in his possession) to “use the right for judicial protection” and challenge the presidential decision stripping him of his citizenship. This promises to be good material for the media. According to his announcement, Saakashvili will attempt to enter Ukraine via a land border coming from Poland. Possibly he chose the land route as it is harder to put him on a plane directly to Georgia in case he drives rather than flies to Ukraine.
While preparing his spectacular return to Ukraine, Saakashvili is actively touring European countries and meeting with political operatives and even public office holders. In Poland Saakashvili managed to meet the minister of foreign affairs and some members of the Polish parliament. During his visit to Denmark, he was assisted by Hanne Severinsen – a former representative of Denmark in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, who has long served as PACE Monitoring committee co-rapporteur on Ukraine.
For the moment, it seems that as long as Saakashvili has influential international contacts, he can still spoil the party for Poroshenko back in Ukraine.
Kataryna Pryshchepa is a PhD student at Graduate School for Social Research, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.