By Andrew Wilson and Nina Bachkatov
President Putin wanted to ‘hang Mikheil Saakashvili by the balls’; president Poroshenko declared him stateless – a more classical way to get rid of a trouble maker, a charade for the West and an indirect success for Moscow.
The irruption of Saakashvili into Ukrainian politics was bizarre, even by the standards of the shaky start of Poroshenko’s presidency. On the recommendations of his Western backers, the new Ukrainian president imported a team of Georgians who had made their name in reforming the country after the November 2003 Rose Revolution including its hero, Mikheil Saakashvili. In 2013, he was forced into exile after a new majority of Georgian politicians began to charge former high leaders, up to the president, with corruption and abuse of power.
At the time, Saakashvili was nursing his defeat in the United States, where he was travelling and lecturing. But he overestimated the support of president Obama who saw no interest in backing trouble-makers in a strategically important region such as the Caucasus. Hence the idea of sending Saakashvili to share his experience of reforming with the new authorities of pro-Western Ukraine. The Ukrainian president had not much choice, making clear in speeches and interviews that he was expecting his country to benefit from Saakashvili’s connections in the West and of his symbolical value as anti-Russian pole in the former Soviet world.
The problem was Saakashvili himself. He attracted, and in some cases imposed, too many Georgians who took over key ministries and official functions in order to speed reforms and fight the network of corruption. But some of those Georgians, and Saakashvili himself, did not refrain from remarks to the effect that they could trust one another but no so much Ukrainians. This contributed to resentment against this “Georgian invasion” (“Why cannot we find good and honest technicians in our country” was a common comment). Nevertheless, Poroshenko had named Saakashvili governor of Odessa, a politically sensitive region, in order to cut the huge level of corruption in and around the Black Sea ports and customs services.
But many Ukrainians were, and still are, convinced that Saakashvili had less interest in their country than in keeping Western attention and using Odessa as a platform for a return to Georgian politics.
Anyway, the first months went well,- in fact too well for the Kiev establishment. In a few months, Saakashvili emerged as Ukraine’s most popular politician, well ahead of President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseni Yatseniuk. By the end of the year, he was seen as a future prime minister. In Odessa, he was popular after he sacked hundreds of officials for corruption and installed new controls.
But, as happened in Georgia earlier, he lost his temper and repeated the same mistakes that led to his defeat in Tbilisi. For him, his failures can only result from sabotage by corrupt elements or hostile foreign governments. From Odessa, his tirades against regional and local leaders moved up to Kiev where, according to him, leading officials were intentionally not supportive. Hostile circles included the parliament, the judiciary, the government, and the presidential administration – and of course the Russians.
Prime minister Yatseniuk was accused of anti-reform’s politics; and later the president Poroshenko of being soft on oligarchs because he was himself taking profits of the reforms’ slowness.
The final straw came not so much when he resigned loudly in November 2016, having lost his local and regional support, but when he launched a new career of oppositionist.
This was not the first frontal challenge to his power for Poroshenko, who spends most of his energy facing endless challenges from different circles. He cannot strike against ultra-nationalists or paramilitary forces, but he can show leadership towards Saakashvili. After all, the Ukrainian diaspora in North American and Great Britain had been a lot more useful gathering support, including financially. He also knew that Saakashvili’s support was growing thin in the West where, without going as far as Moscow where question over his mental condition abounded, there were a growing recognition that his behaviour might be erratic and restless. More importantly, nobody wanted to risk Ukraine’s stability and Poroshenko’s regime for the sake of a has-been of Georgian politics.
On 26 July 2017, while Saakashvili was in the United States, Poroshenko deprived him of the Ukrainian citizenship he was granted in May 2015. Because Tbilisi had reacted by depriving him of his Georgian citizenship, he is now stateless (unless he manages to persuade the Netherlands to give him Dutch citizenship of his Dutch wife), and risks extradition to Tbilisi where he could face arrest and trial.
The fall of the former ‘Soros boy’ has been met with black humour in Russia. After Saakashvili has failed in both Georgia and Ukraine, the countries which have been since 2003-2004 at the vanguard of a move due to exert Western influence, and reduce that of Russia, in the former USSR. Russian prime minister Medvedev spoke of a “tragi-comedy” demonstrating the limits of the couloured revolutions which have been seen as paving the way for a wave of pro-Western liberal democracy to engulf all the former Soviet states, with Russian as the ultimate bonus.
But one cannot ignore the weight of the current Russian-Western tensions. There are already comments in the West to the effect that in exchange of dropping Saakashvili and accepting the Georgian request for his extradition to face trial, Poroshenko can recreate a tandem pushing for a joint rapprochement with NATO and EU. Up to now Georgian president Giorgi Margvelachvili has said he wants to find a middle way between Russia and the West.