Saakashvili sets sights on Kiev after dramatic return to Ukraine
Populist former Georgian leader thrives in role of anti-oligarch crusader
Former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili: returned to Ukraine despite being stripped of his citizenship by its president, former ally Petro Poroshenko. Photograph: AFP / Yuri Dyachyshyny/ Getty Images
Constantly on the move, closely watched by the police, facing prosecution and bitterly at odds with the country’s leaders – Mikheil Saakashvili is back in his element since his extraordinary return to Ukraine.
The former Georgian president was swept across the border from Poland by supporters last Sunday, and is now visiting provincial towns and cities before setting his sights on Kiev, and a ruling elite that he accuses of betraying the nation.
For Mr Saakashvili (49) it is also a return to his favourite role, that of a political outsider risking everything to defend ordinary people from injustice, which he played first as leader of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution and has sought to reprise several times since.
“The people took me by the hand and returned me to Ukraine. It was the decision of the people,” Mr Saakashvili said of his unorthodox return to the country, having been stripped of his citizenship by its president, former ally Petro Poroshenko.
“I will travel a lot. I don’t have a passport so I cannot fly on a plane. I will travel by car, by stagecoach, I’ll hitchhike – but I will reach every Ukrainian.”
Mr Saakashvili said he planned to “travel around all the regions of Ukraine, to unite as much as possible with people and with different political forces around a shared theme – that we should have democracy and not the diktat of oligarchs.”
“I have a clear plan: to end theft from the economy; to end the power of the oligarchy; to end misuse of power.”
The same manifesto helped make him president of Georgia in 2004 and drove several years of highly successful reforms, which slashed petty corruption and boosted foreign investment and economic growth in the Caucasus state.
The rapid change that Mr Saakashvili brought to Georgia, in the face of constant pressure from and even a short 2008 war with Russia, seemed to make him a perfect ally for Ukraine after its own pro-western revolution in 2014.
An invitation to Ukraine from Mr Poroshenko offered Mr Saakashvili a political rebirth, after almost a decade as Georgia’s president ended with his party being discredited and defeated and the new authorities charging him with abuse of power.
In 2015 Mr Poroshenko made Mr Saakashvili the governor of Odessa – Ukraine’s largest region and one of its most corrupt – and the two men were all smiles and backslapping bonhomie as they met crowds of people in the Black Sea port city.
But after a year fighting losing battles against the region’s powerful web of corrupt officials and organised crime, the Georgian quit.
“I can’t stand this, I’ve had enough. I’m tired of this. And I want to say: nobody in my life has lied so much or so cynically to me,” Mr Saakashvili said, accusing Mr Poroshenko and other top officials of sabotaging reforms and anti-graft efforts.
Looking straight into news cameras, Mr Saakashvili asked his erstwhile allies in Kiev: “How much can you lie and cheat?”
His resignation was widely seen as more proof of Ukraine’s failure to dismantle a network of vested interests controlled by oligarchs like Mr Poroshenko, who made billions in confectionery alongside a long career in politics.
Mr Saakashvili’s departure followed those of several other foreign reformers, including a handful of Georgians, who complained that Ukraine’s leaders did not really want to reform an old, grubby system of backroom deals between cronies.
Having been stripped of his Georgian passport and facing prosecution in his homeland, Mr Saakashvili vowed to stay in Ukraine, and he founded a reformist party to compete in national elections due in 2019.
Moving centre stage
His plans were thrown into chaos in July, however, when Mr Poroshenko annulled his Ukrainian passport due to his alleged failure to state on his application form that he was under investigation in Georgia – a fact that was common knowledge at the time, yet only this summer became a concern for Kiev.
Mr Saakashvili insisted the lack of a valid passport would not stop him returning to fight for his rights in Ukraine – and so it proved on Sunday, in chaotic scenes on the Polish frontier that officials said injured at least 16 police and border guards. He crossed the frontier with several opposition deputies and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who shares his antipathy for Ukraine’s current rulers.
Mr Poroshenko has sought to play down the incident and said the police investigation must run its course.
He must know, however, how quickly political fortunes can change in Ukraine, and that even a loose and volatile alliance between those arch populists, Mr Saakashvili and Ms Tymoshenko, could make his life very uncomfortable ahead of the 2019 elections.
For his part Mr Saakashvili, never more comfortable than when in the spotlight, plans to move towards centre stage on Tuesday. “I will go to a few towns and then we’ll move to Kiev,” he declared last week.
“September 19th, someone told me, is the day of the Archangel Mikhail – the guardian of Kiev. Kiev needs urgently to be saved!”
“That will be the start and then, in a few weeks, there will be many more of us, and after a while everything will end as it did at [the border]\. The road will open, but for the oligarchs it will be one way and for Ukraine – forward, forward towards victory.”