By Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson
On 22 November 2003, Saakashvili stormed the Georgian parliament and expelled president Shevardnadze from the session. On 10 September 2017, he stormed the Polish border, challenging not only Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko but also the West, which had supported both of them for years.
The facts are well known and demonstrate that it is always better to be cautious when declaring a political career dead. On Sunday, a month and a half after being deprived of his Ukrainian citizenship, Saakashvili decided to fulfill his promise to come back “by train, by bus or walking”. After games of hide and seek with the Ukrainian frontier guards, and his train blocked twice at the Polish border, he finally managed to re-enter by rail from Poland and crossed the border post at Medyka-Cheguyni.
The crossing was a considerable feast of showmanship. Under the eyes of foreign journalists and cameramen, not there by accident, Saakashvili was greeted by hundreds of supporters, and by two declared opponents of Poroshenko – the liberal deputy Mustafa Nayyem, and the former prime minister and a figurehead of the two Maidan (2004 and 2014) Yulia Tymoshenko who had also became a cause celebre in the West when she was imprisoned by President Yanukovich.
According to Saakashvili’s version, his supporters ‘transported’ him across the border. He called on border guards to disobey the country’s ‘corrupted junta’. ”. Pictures of him shouting abuse at the general in charge of the force went viral on social networks.
He then moved to Lviv where he was triumphally received and told a meeting of his intention to create an opposition coalition capable of challenging Poroshenko in 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections.
All that by a man stateless since July 2017 when he was deprived of his Ukrainian citizenship by Poroshenko who has granted it with great pomp in 2015 when he nominated him governor of Odessa. Being a double national, he was then stripped of his Georgian citizenship.
A further problem of the latest situation is that Poroshenko is confronted with a man whom he himself earlier invited with a great fanfare, and allowing him to recruit numerous Georgian politicians who worked under his Georgian presidency under the pretext that all Ukrainian officials were corrupted or vulnerable to pressions. All that despite the unease of many Ukrainians who felt invaded and sidelined despite the existence of enough competence in the country without inviting foreigners.
With the return of Saakashvili, Poroshenko faces various challenges.
The first is that he faces another division of the forces who backed him since 2004, including former allies tired of the lack of reforms, and of course tired of corruption.
The second is that the “Maidan heritage” is threatened from inside by people who take their legitimacy from their participation in the revolt – and by a man whom Poroshenko himself invited despite the fact that many knew Saakashvili as temperamental and unpredictable. In fact, the only thing Poroshenko and Saakashvili shared was their anti-Russian feelings, which has limited political use in a country sitting between East and West.
The third is Poroshenko’s limited resources with which to countering the move. He can hardly use his classical tactic of denouncing the hand of Moscow, considering Saakashvili’s well known hatred for Putin. Even if Poroshenko suspects that Saakashvili has acted with the blessing of neo-conservators in Washington, he can hardly point the finger to them since they have been supporting the “Ukrainian cause” up to this day. Neither can he criticise the EU, not only because it provided solid support to Maidan but also because Saakashvili crossed from Poland, a EU-member that supported the two Maidan. He can even less accuse the financier George Soros, who has been both the mentor of Saakashvili and a backer of Maidan. On the top of that, it would put Poroshenko on the same boat as Viktor Orban, hardly a way to derive sympathy from Brussels and Washington.
The fourth is that, faced to a national scandal with limited capacities of action, Poroshenko is obliged to react if he wants to stay a credible leader in the eyes of his country’s population and parliament where some deputies are calling for a tough action and criticise the attitude of the border guard, which they say they had no orders to shoot.
He did his utmost by calling the behavior of his protegee a “crime”, adding ”this is a national security issue… I do not care who violates the state border, whether it’s militants in the east or politicians in the west”, he said. Meanwhile the Interior Minister has opened an inquiry into the ”illegal crossing of the border” that can sent Saakashvili to jail for 5 years. At the same time, an arrest or deportation to Georgia, where Saakashvili would face charges of abuse of power, will lead to accusations of political repression. Not very well inspired, prime minister Volodymyr Groisman has spoken of an “attack against the state” which he compared to the war led by separatists in the Donbass giving flesh to a danger to national unity and thus putting oil on the fire.
It is premature to speak of another split of Ukraine, but it is true that the adventure has exposed the weak control of Kiev on its political forces and even its borders. The danger came first on the Eastern side of the country, and now, for other reasons, a risk emerges in the West. Because the choice of Lviv is not innocent. The city is the capital of the part of Ukraine which considers itself the deposit of Ukrainitude compared with Kiev, more russified throughout its history, and a region from which an important part of the Ukrainian diaspora originated.
This is the cradle of Ukrainian nationalisms, against Poles – then against Russians. Moreover, the mayor of the city of Lviv is Andry Sadovy, an actor of the Maidan turned a prominent Poroshenko critic, with a programme to fight the” dictatorship of the oligarchs” and corruption.
2019 is a long way to go in an unstable country but Saakashvili clearly sees himself capable of dramatically ousting president Poroshenho as he did with Shevarnadze who, up to eve of the Revolution has been backed by the West.
And Saakashvili has his back to the wall, with nothing to lose – contrary to Poroshenko.