The unexpected turn of #SaakashviliSunday
Sunday September 10th did not start well for Mikheil Saakashvili. The former Georgian President, former governor of Odesa and now former Ukrainian citizen and persona non grata in his adoptive home chose Sunday for his great return to Ukrainian soil. Already in the early morning hours, however, it appeared that nothing was going as planned and few actually believed that Saakashvili would make it across the border.
Saakashvili, nevertheless, had planned it out carefully. A press conference was meant to take place in the Polish border town of Przemyśl. From there he was to be escorted by his family and a crowd of invited journalists and supporters to the border at Korczowa-Krakovets to make the first attempt to enter Ukraine since being stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship in July 2017 on murky grounds. But all of that changed as events unfolded.
First, due to Saakashvili’s fear of provocation, the location of the press conference was changed at the last minute to Rzeszów, which prevented a number of media outlets, including the Georgian Public Broadcaster and ImediTV, from covering the event. Those journalists who did make it to the Metropolitan Hotel in the centre of Rzeszów were left without much guidance, endlessly following Saakashvili in and out of the hotel and up and down stairs leading to the conference room. They ended up in a nearby café watching him having a little chat with Yulia Tymoshenko and Jacek Saryusz Wolski, a Polish member of the European Parliament.
After a short walk through the narrow alleys of the city, during which they were followed by a confused crowd, the three hopped onto a bus. The journalists followed suit and soon found out they were heading towards Przemyśl’s main train station. An hour in the unbearably overcrowded, sweltering bus, with the late summer sun rising behind the closed windows was a bad omen. That inconvenience notwithstanding, Saakashvili remained positive during the whole journey, smiling and posing for pictures without offering much of an explanation of the bizarre schedule changes.
This changed when we arrived in Przemyśl. With renewed confidence and joined by supporters such as Maidan legend Mustafa Nayyem, Saakashvili announced that he will attempt to enter Ukraine via the Przemyśl-Kyiv Intercity train – a symbol of Ukraine’s superficial modernisation. In several heated speeches, Saakashvili and his associates compared Petro Poroshenko’s governing style to that of the infamous Viktor Yanukovych, and stressed their commitment to building a strong, democratic Ukraine.
But again, nothing worked out as planned. Upon boarding the train it was announced via the PA system that the train will not leave the station as long as a “person unauthorised to enter Ukraine” was on board. This was repeated several times but it remains unclear whether the decision was made by the Ukrainian national rail alone or at a much higher level.
“It’s quite scandalous, because you do not solve your internal problems on the territory of another country,” Saakashvili said in response. “In Poland, if they see any problem with my documents they would have stopped me … and what they [the Ukrainian border guards] are doing now is basically violating Polish law, they are blocking the movement on the Polish side of the border … because of one man!” he exclaimed.
“This is dictatorship in its purest form. The president just gives an order not to let the train move,” Tymoshenko added.
While Saakashvili insisted that the Polish foreign and interior ministries were ready to intervene with the rail services to enable him to leave the country, there was little proof that it was indeed the case. After a two hour delay, with passengers losing their temper and one man even getting physically violent with Saakashvili, he decided to opt for Plan B.
Abandoning the train, Saakashvili and his entourage made a 30-minute drive to the popular border crossing at Medyka-Shehyni. The crossing was closed immediately after Saakashvili left the Polish side. On the Ukrainian side, he was greeted by a blockade of border patrol cars and a military cordon, claiming that the border has been mined, thus sealing of the Ukrainian side. Meanwhile, on both sides of the border tempers were rising. In front of the now closed Polish crossing, a small group of activists from Saakashvili’s Movement of New Forces stirred up the already tense atmosphere among the commuters waiting at the border by chanting “Do Domu!” (“We want to go home”!). A rally soon followed with people singing the Ukrainian national anthem. The activists blamed Poroshenko for sealing the border and were banging on plastic traffic barriers.
At the same time, crowds continued to gather in front of the Ukrainian crossing. According to eyewitnesses, around 500-700 Saakashvili supporters amassed against the hundred soldiers on the border. Among the chaos caused by the border closure, Saakashvili managed to break through the military cordon with the help of the crowd, without his passport being checked. As reported by the Ukrainian Border Guard, 12 policemen and five border guards were injured in the process. Saakashvili had crossed into Ukraine and triumphantly continued his journey to Lviv, where he was greeted by the city’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi.
Saakashvili’s political party, which he set up following his December resignation as Odesa governor, so far has very low support in the polls (around two per cent). Yet, Sunday’s events might set his Ukrainian political career on a new path. Despite the fact that in the morning most believed the spectacle would be nothing more than a show by an overly ambitious, narcissistic politician; his very return to Ukraine illustrated that his bravado and unwavering belief in his capabilities might cause even more drama on Ukraine’s political scene.
However, #SaakashviliSunday also demonstrated the dramatic weakness of the Ukrainian state and its inability to adhere to its own laws: starting with the dubious reasons for depriving Saakashvili of Ukrainian citizenship, to the ungrounded halting of the train in Przemyśl and finally allowing the standard passport check procedures to be omitted as he crossed the border.
Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a journalist focusing on the post-Soviet space and an editor with New Eastern Europe.
Kaja Puto is a Polish journalist and editor who writes on Eastern Europe and migration.